Old Posts

I had another blog at another place a while ago. I didn’t like where that platform was heading, so I canceled my account. Yep, it was for pay. If only there were some good, free blogging services out there!

Anyway, these are the posts I rescued from there. I diddled with the formatting a tad, but the content is unchanged. The comments, tragically, are lost to antiquity.

Metra: The Way To Really Fail

originally posted: 10-Dec-2009 12:43

Winter happens around here, at least for now. It’s not a relatively unpredictable, localized weather event like a tornado; it’s a given. You can be sure that for about 25% of the year (and it feels like 60%) the air will be arctic and the ground will be covered with ice. I doubt you could find anyone to take a bet against it happening.

Most of us plan for it and deal with it, part of that hearty protestant Midwestern thing. Some people and institutions, however, are incapable of sucking it up and subsequently crumble. Year after year. None worse than mighty Metra, our beloved commuter rail system. The excerpt below is from the “Service Alerts” tab on their website:

The National Weather Service forecast continues to include a Winter Weather Advisory and Hazardous Weather Outlook for the Chicago area that may adversely affect portions of the region served by Metra. Please refer to: National Weather Service Forecast

In this regard, please be advised that as always, we will make every reasonable effort to assure your timely and comfortable commute. Unfortunately, weather conditions beyond our control often create unanticipated delays or service disruptions. Depending on the severity of conditions in specific areas, your train may experience minor delays. Metra will continue utilize all possible measures available to combat extraordinary weather conditions. Please allow extra travel time to assure your safe passage to and from your destination. We regret any unanticipated weather related delays that you may experience and appreciate your patience. Thank you for choosing Metra for your travel needs. Please refer to Metra’s Service Updates for line-specific information. Metra’s Service Updates

Look at how the weasel words slide off the page: “every reasonable effort,” “unanticipated,” “may experience minor delays,” “extraordinary weather conditions,” “unanticipated weather related delays,” “may experience.”

It’s bad enough that these buffoons are unprepared for a quarter of the calendar every year, but the real crime is that they won’t just own it. Blaming the “unexpected” weather? This weather might be unexpected if you were running a railway in Guam, sunshine, but the ice here is as predictable as the fraud. If you’re going to deflect blame, at least be interesting or ballsy about it. “The trains are late because we’re too busy fighting the alien invasion.” No, the sheer wussiness of this text is the work of one who knows his organization screwed the pooch but can’t quite come out and say so.

As one who has fucked up professionally, publicly, in high profile manners, and repeatedly, let me lend my expertise and take a crack at a rewrite of their service bulletin:

Mostly because we don’t care, and partly because we once again forgot what every three-year-old knows—which is that winter comes annually to our fair city—we did not upgrade our switching equipment for the 26th consecutive year. So it froze again and your trains are going to be late, possibly very. You should think about driving or just calling in sick. We’ve got guys out there in the yard with little gas torches to try to thaw the frozen switches because we have absolutely no clue about managing the assets of a modern North American railway. Sucks to be those guys, amirite? Those torches are fuckin’ balls, though. Want.

Part of our paralysis is because we are terrified of raising fares or asking for more government funding which would ultimately come from taxes. That would be controversial, and perhaps draw too much attention to us from the slowly dying local media. (We think we can outlive them if we just stay low. Fuck you, Kass.) Anyway, we refrain from building things right, instead choosing to waste bigger piles of money fixing them when they break over and over again. If a few hundred thousand commuters have to be inconvenienced in the process, well, that’s a tradeoff we’re happy to make if it keeps us out of the papers during election season. A few days of bad coverage in December while we’re wintering at St. Kitts isn’t too bad.

Really, though, what do you expect? All of us dilettantes on the Metra board are politically-connected hacks and cronies with very little experience doing actual work. Certainly, we don’t know crap about heavy infrastructure like railways, though we do like the spiffy helicopters we get to use to go to board meetings. Those are cool. Photo ops at groundbreaking ceremonies for parking lots that take three years to build are also really fun. But managing rail transportation that’s absolutely vital to the economy around here is really hard work and we’re just not feeling it, broheims. So, enjoy the Kennedy, or standing on the platform for an hour while three packed expresses whiz by. We’ll commission a blue-ribbon committee to do a study about how to fix this just as soon as we get back to town in May.

<3 <3 <3


The Metra Board

Dog Sheepish

originally posted: 15-Nov-2009 22:30

For the second time this year we thought we had lost him. Like back in May, the old dog looked down at his breakfast, looked back at Sharon, and then walked away from a full bowl. This is the reddest of flags around here where the thinking has long been that if we cut open a 50lb bag of Eukanuba and turned him loose, Jake would bury his face in it and eat until his stomach ruptured, and then keep eating for probably a few more minutes.

Much like the adventure last spring, this skipped kibble started a sequence of events which ended with Jake spending a couple of nights in a veterinary hospital. He’s got all sorts of apparently congenital liver problems which are catching up with him as he approaches his tenth birthday. For both of this year’s flare-ups, he’s responded to antibiotics and hepatoprotectant drugs. The ultrasounds don’t show any tumors or lesions though they do show the effects of chronic cirrhosis. Given all that, and the absence of anything really conclusive in the lab work, these episodes may be nothing more than infections. Life-threatening for sure, but treatable it seems. It bugs me that they can’t say definitively. At this hour, we’re still waiting for a lab test that would confirm leptospirosis, so that might be it. It would explain all the symptoms and the positive response to antibiotics and, paradoxically, give me peace of mind. Jake certainly doesn’t lack peace of mind. He’s snoring loudly at the moment, a sign perhaps of normalcy returning.

We have much to be thankful for. Take this dog entering our lives in the first place. It couldn’t have been more random. My brother-in-law, who knew we were looking for a dog, told us of a friend of his who lived on a farm outside Champaign where there were lots of free puppies available. When we got down there, we found three bitches on this farm had whelped at almost the same time. The theory that a single rogue father wandered through and had the night of his life some months prior had support in that the twenty+ pups had similar characteristics, notably these giant heads. Dad might have been a Rottie, that kind of look.

A shifting, yipping blur of big-headed pups frolicked in this grassy field near a barn while the three exhausted mothers lay nearby, sleepily watching the melee and suckling a few of the more timid souls. As we approached the scrum we hardly knew how to pick one. As we debated it, watching for a while from a safe distance, one little brown fellow with a pumpkin-colored spot on his head and a white chest had separated from the pack to come over and check us out. That pretty much settled it right there. We like to think he chose us rather than the other way around.

As we got to know him a little bit that chilly spring afternoon, we noticed he had an enormous, distended belly. It wasn’t just puppy fat; he was almost the diameter of a football. We had just about talked ourselves out of taking him—what if he had some horrific tumor or something in his gut, and was destined to a short, painful (and expensive) life with us?—but we talked ourselves back into it. If he was sick, we figured we had the wherewithal to help him or at least provide comfort on his way out. If something really was wrong, to stay on that farm would have surely doomed him to a more Hobbesian dénouement. Decision made. When we got back to my brother-in-law’s house and took him for a walk around the neighborhood, our fears were instantly allayed when he barfed up a pile of half-digested grass, corn cobs, and pine cones that was nearly his own size. He had just eaten too much junk he’d found lying around the barnyard. This story reverberated when Sharon called to tell me he wasn’t eating his breakfast the other day.

We also have to be thankful that we could afford to treat him. I won’t get political on you here, but it’s an undeniable fact that this dog has better access to healthcare than 40 million Americans. American people. Two multinight stays in the dog hospital plus heaps of exotic liver medicine and vitamins simply aren’t in the works for the vast majority of pets, much less a tragic minority of humans. We’re lucky we can cover it, though arguably foolish to burn this much cash as we’re gearing up to buy a house early next year.

As I reflect today on all this good fortune, a second revelation comes to me which lowers my orbit. Perspective matters, even if it is occasionally a bit too much fucking perspective. As this saga has unfolded over the last couple of days, I’ve been updating my facebook status with some of the play by play. The little box asks me “what’s on my mind” and so I mechanically comply. “Dying dog” is what’s on my mind, thanks very much for asking. But right there on the same page, especially lately, I have been reading about astounding levels of human tragedy. My friends are dealing with mortality: their own, and that of their parents and spouses. (Mercifully, the kids are all right.) The Great Recession also weighs heavily on many of my loved ones. I imagine the conclusions some may draw while reading my overwrought recap of which flavors of Pill Pockets™ we’re buying while they lose their jobs, help their parents through chemo, and in one extraordinarily heartbreaking case, bury a spouse.

What I want to say here, tonight, is: I get it. I know you would trade seats with me in a nanosecond. I would, too. I won’t apologize for how I feel, but I want to acknowledge that my local tragedy is actually writ very small on the grand scale. It’s probably just that I’m more aware of it thanks to the communications miracles that surround us, but it feels like we’re at world record levels of suckage right now. A sick dog, one who’s had a relatively long and hopefully happy run, doesn’t really match up to what else I see out there. I will continue to say “what’s on my mind” when the javascript asks. It’s cathartic, it’s an easy way to reach a lot of people who want to know, and the support via feedback feels good. I just want anyone who’s out there fighting through the real shitstorms that life brings to know that I’m thinking about and supporting your battles, too. We’re all in this together, right? I hope so.

To that point, I’ll wrap up with this. Throughout last week there were only two times when I actually came close to losing it, two exceptionally human moments in this animal drama. One was when Sharon told me that our dog walker, Liz, offered to drive all the way up to Northbrook to sit with her while she was in the waiting room of the animal hospital freaking out. The other was when I was talking to our regular vet (who is far more awesome and compassionate than any doctor I’ve ever had) and she asked me to call them and let them know how Jake was doing that first night, just because they love Jake and were worried about us. We definitely are all in this together. It’s the only way we’ll make it.

Change of Control

originally posted: 10-Jul-2009 20:34

It was a miserable, gray, slushy, midwinter day in 2001 or 2002. I had been working on a truly gruesome coding project, fixing someone else’s disaster under immense time pressure during a complex integration of two businesses. We had a hard deadline approaching and dozens of people were blocked by this project’s being incomplete. The code I’d inherited was so badly written and impenetrable that I resorted to printing a big chunk of it out on 8.5” x 11” paper, maybe 20 pages’ worth, and taping them together top-to-bottom into one long vertical sheet. Obviously there was no continuous feed printer around; this might have been a case where old technology worked better than new. After creating this 20ish foot monstrosity and laying it out on the floor, my next step was to crawl along it with various colored highlighter pens to connect the curly braces whose mates were several feet away. (To the non-nerds in the audience, don’t worry, that’s the end of the hare core geekery for this post.) It was the only way I could think of to make sense of the previous coder’s slop. My colleagues all got a good laugh at my expense; my manager shook his head in dismay as I sat on the floor coloring like a preschooler. By the time I left late that night, though, I’d solved it. The victory was short-lived—I left the office just as a massive blizzard started. It took me over two hours to get home. ‘Twas epic. The next morning heralded one of those classic post-storm Chicago winter days where the barometric pressure skyrockets and the temperature plummets. You could hear the new snow make hard, crunching noises as you walked on it, at least if you were outside and dumb enough not to have your ears covered with something thick and wooly. I didn’t bother shoveling out the alley since driving back to work would have taken half the day, instead deciding to hoof it to the train. Cross country skis or snowshoes would have helped. Also generally helpful would be a regional commuter railroad that isn’t surprised by ice in the winter—the switches in the downtown yard had frozen solid and there were guys out there with little flamethrowers (and how badly do I want one!) thawing them out. So my 20 minute trip via "the way to really fly" actually took two hours.

Sure enough, by the time I sat down and read my email that morning, some crapstain middle manager in New York had turned the whole project plan on its ear and obviated the need for the tedious, difficult task I’d completed the night before. Like so many times before I took a moment—face down with my nose on the “F” key, listening to Outlook beeping frantically because it doesn’t understand “F” three hundred times in rapid succession, in hypothermic shock from the walk from the train station—to ponder the career choices that had led me to that parlous juncture. Quickly, angrily, I made the following resolutions:

It was epiphanic. The fog cleared very quickly from there. Determined, I decided that having something tangible as a daily reminder of these goals would be helpful. I wanted something to look at or touch when things got grim again as they surely would. I googled around and chose a laminated map of Hawai’i as the physical representation of these goals.

When my touchstone arrived a couple of days later, I tacked it to my cubicle wall. As The Man later decided—surely with good reason—to move me around that beige, soulless office six times over the next two years, it moved with me. I ended up having to reinforce the corners with extra Scotch tape because the repeated perforations from the push pins had compromised the structural integrity so severely.

* * *

On October 18, 2004, a confluence of exceptionally fortunate circumstances enabled me to achieve Resolution One. Along with my three partners, I quit working for The Man. We four and our first two full-time employees sat down that day in a borrowed conference room at Northwestern with a Box-O-Joe, a dozen donuts, and a pad of these 3-foot Post-It notes that you can stick on a wall in lieu of a whiteboard. We sketched out how we wanted to build our platform, and, maybe more importantly, we sketched out how we wanted to build our business. We’d all been embittered by The Man and were determined not to become him. This thing we were creating would be substantially different.

In the spring of 2005 we moved into our permanent office space in Evanston. I put the dog-eared map of Hawai’i up in the computer room there since we didn’t have high cubicle walls (damn right we didn’t) and there was no wall behind my corner desk, only floor-to-ceiling windows exposing a spectacular panorama of Lake Michigan to the east and Chicago to the south. I missed seeing the rendering of my retirement destination every day, but the replacement was inarguably a giant upgrade.

Lots of things happen when you run a business, many of which you don’t anticipate. What separates the winners from the losers most times is not how well they planned, but how well they reacted to the things that shot holes in their plans. For various reasons, legal being foremost and modesty somewhere further down the line, I can’t go into detail about the trajectory of our firm over these nearly five years. I can say that our ideas were proven to work, money was made, investors were excited and participated actively. We mostly executed according to our plan and adapted well when challenged. We built an extraordinarily talented team who worked hard and built a system which I believe is unparalleled in our industry. Best, we had fun doing it.

None of this happened in a vacuum, of course. The climate for business and investment the last two years can only be described as dreadful. While the increased volatility in the equity markets was great news for our particular business model, our investors, like everyone else, saw their personal portfolios crumble before their eyes. The timing couldn’t have been worse: just as we needed a substantial influx of capital to buy more hardware and hire more engineers to take our business to the ultimate level, we found that the appetite for that type of investment had dwindled to near zero. Frankly, too, our own patience as founding partners had been stretched. We were also investors, and the board presidents we each answer to in our own homes were demanding substantially increased returns.

We came to the conclusion early this year that selling the firm was the best—maybe the only—way to grow the business in the quantum fashion we envisioned. Our organic growth was positive but the slope simply wasn’t steep enough. We needed help, the kind of help for which you have to surrender something substantial. In deals like this, that price is euphemistically described as a “change of control.” In transactions like this, the sellers don’t reap a mountain of cash and buy one-way tickets to an island paradise 4,000 miles away. Instead, they go to work for the buyer. They go to work for The Man.

* * *

The deal closed last week and I was in my new downtown office reporting for duty the next day. So far, everyone at my new firm has been great and the culture seems to fit with ours. One thing that is really helping to ease the transition back to the bigger pond is that the sector I work in comprises an unusually small, tight circle of people, and there are at least a dozen folks at the new gig whom I’ve worked with before, including my own boss. It feels familiar, sort of like returning to a 10-year college reunion. I think we’re going to do just fine since The Man is, in this case, a mensch.

I went back up to Evanston over the weekend to clean out my desk and get some personal effects from the office. We’ve got a sublessor coming in fairly soon so the space has to be cleared. As I took my last lap around, enjoying the sparkle of the sunshine off the lake’s surface, I remembered to peek into the computer room to see if there was anything there I’d forgotten. Glad I did. The tape had started to yellow and gum a little, but there on the door was my touchstone map. Aloha. I took it down, rolled it up, and now it’s in a box in the garage with a bunch of other stuff I retrieved that I haven’t figured out where to store. I’m sitting at a trading desk at the new office; there really isn’t a lot of room for personal items. In any case I’m about 100 feet from the nearest wall so the map doesn’t really make sense there. The walls in my office at home are pretty crowded, too, so it may be some time before I find a new home for it. But I am keeping it. Though I may have had to back out of Resolution One, I still have a chance at Resolution Two. My plan may be shot full of holes, but I am reacting.


originally posted: 09-May-2009 16:38

Cute. The Kewl Kidz of the Washington media establishment are having their annual circle jerk tonight, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and many of them are documenting it on Twitter with the hashtag #nerdprom. What a lark! Look at us lighthearted souls romping through the cherry blossoms! See how we’ve embraced social media! Aren’t we teh awesomz?

I have a lot to do this weekend and probably should let it go, but this violently enrages me for at least two reasons and I want to get it off my chest so I can enjoy watching pro golfers hit balls into a lake for the rest of the afternoon.

One. You don’t get to call yourselves “nerds.” Not seriously, not ironically, not because of your massive, latent self-loathing, not under any fucking circumstances. I’m a nerd — a science nerd, a math nerd, a music nerd (band geek division), a DIY nerd, a computer nerd. I know lots and lots of nerds. I went to high school and two universities chock full of them. I work with them every day. I hang out with nerds when I drink beer and play music. My kids are displaying early nerd tendencies and I couldn’t be prouder.

In stark contrast stand those attending the WHCD. Most definitely not nerds, you are the pretty ones, the most popular of the in crowd, having risen to the top of the top of social hierarchies time and again. Beautiful and rich, pampered and isolated, it does seem you have the “prom” part of the tag right in the sense that you’re immature, self-absorbed, maybe looking for a good hump in a hotel room after the party. But “nerds” you are not and will never be. You are the people who most looked down on nerds on their way up. The jocks who pounded us against a locker until we gave them our science homework, the cheerleaders who flirted shamelessly with us in the computer lab until we were done recovering their document from a corrupted disk and then couldn’t even bother to look at us again — no. “Nerd” is a high compliment where I come from, a term indicating mastery of something arcane and difficult, and your crowd simply isn’t worthy of it. That you are the most likely to have viciously abused my fellow nerds in the past renders the use of the phrase literally sickening.

Two. We haven’t forgotten what you did. After 9/11, when the American people needed truth and light more urgently than at any point in my lifetime, you sat there in the White House briefing room day after day and simply regurgitated the lies of the Chimpenführer. Unchallenged, and in some cases even amplified, the stories about WMD, Saddam, etc. poured forth and you performed flawlessly as hagiographers. It’s not a stretch to say that the environment in which those war criminals flourished was made possible by your work. You knew shock and awe would move papers and sell ads. Leni Riefenstahl would have loved it.

And so here you are, today, resplendent in your designer gowns and tuxedos, stepping out of limos and sipping champagne, blithely unaware of the carnage you’ve wrought. Hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and thousands of dead American troops won’t be watching the proceedings from the red carpet tonight, I’m afraid. The tens of millions of Americans struggling with a recession exacerbated by the trillions wasted on this sickening war are only slightly less apathetic about your little spring formal tonight. You don’t lack chutzpah, I will say that.

Maybe Wanda Sykes will go Colbert on your supercilious asses. That’d be great. Not that you’d notice — you seemed to miss it last time.

So, yuck it up with the livetweeting. Enjoy your night in the klieg lights and ponder just how wonderful life in America is for your ilk. Look up, maybe you’ll see a shooting star. I imagine life was pretty great for those in the Cretaceous period, too.

I Don’t Practice Santeria

originally posted: 26-Apr-2009 20:44

Saw this sign posted in a neighbor’s front yard the other night while walking my dog. I do not believe this is a joke.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Local News Producers: here’s a free idea

originally posted 22-Apr-2009 08:20

  1. Put a seismograph in a car and drive down pretty much any thoroughfare in Chicago at the posted speed limit. 
  2. Do a report on what that drive would register on the Richter scale due to the potholes. Compare/contrast with, say, San Francisco 1906 or Chile 1960.
  3. Find Mayor Redface McDumbfuck for a comment, get him to stutter and mumble and pound a podium and otherwise be incoherent as usual.  
  4. Ask him how a failing city that can’t provide basic services like driveable roads (nevermind more complex things like education) can possibly support something as gigantic as the Olympics, either financially or logistically.
  5. Hilarity ensues.

You’re welcome.

A Sidebar on the Facebook Debacle

originally posted: 29-Mar-2009

I’d actually started writing up a long, detailed, boring thing on the recent Facebook UI changes. And then I realized it was, well, long and detailed and boring. In fact, it was way past healthy long/detailed/boring and was heading into the territory of Kevin Spacey’s character’s deranged notebooks in Se7en. So I canned it. Not the way I want to break out of my writer’s block.

I will, however, present one thought culled from that draft manifesto. When you’ve got a fairly rich service used by over 175 million people, it goes without saying that people are going to use it in different ways and enjoy some features more than others. Personally, on Facebook, I enjoy seeing status updates, photos, and links, and especially finding old friends. Conversely, I don’t care if I never run another one of those ludicrous “apps” ever again. In fact, as I tried to sort the spam that had suddenly taken over my home page, I uninstalled all but one or two that I have soft spots for and will probably never install any new ones again unless the paradigm really changes. I just don’t care to take quizzes written by junior high kids or send you a pretend beer. And as much as I love you, personally, I don’t care about your quiz results or pretend beer drinking habits, either.

Your mileage may vary, as surely that of many of the other 1.75 x 108 users does. And so it isn’t surprising that there were some people who liked the changes they rolled out. From a probabilistic point of view it was absolutely inevitable. Unfortunately, all the polling done on the matter suffers badly from selection bias, and so we’ll never know what percentage of the crowd really liked it.

There was surprisingly little traditional media coverage on this, certainly only a fraction of the heat generated by FB’s previous public relations disaster, the Terms of Service flap from a few weeks back. That silliness landed on the front page of the Chicago Tribune and the BBC. This was a quieter affair. What media I did find generally reported on the poll application that ran 94% opposed, and typically included quotes from outraged, semiliterate teenagers. “d00d put it back, this suX,” etc.

But there was one subsector of the media, if you relax the definition of “media” far enough, whose coverage deserves special mention. The self-styled “tech bloggers” and “web 2.0 experts” out there, edgy contrarians all deeply in love with their precisely crafted curmudgeonly, crusty images, had lots to say. (I won’t link to the trolls, but they’re easy to find. Start with twitter search or google news.)

Many of these razor sharp minds stated, as flatly as they might state that water is wet, that these changes were a vast improvement over the old layout. That opinion is certainly their right. But a few went way past that to decry anyone who didn’t agree as “confused,” “whiny,” “ungrateful,” “neanderthal,” “luddites,” and in one case, I swear, “afraid of change.”

Yeah, that’s me. All those things. You too?

I wonder how likely any of these brave, cheetoh-stained wretches whacking out copy from mom’s basement would be to use such pejorative language in person. Actually, I don’t wonder much at all. Whatever—some of us build technology, and some of us add lame suffixes like “-izer” to our surnames and inexplicably become Web 2.0 “celebrities” by twittering banalities about those who do. It’s going to be a better internet when this metacommentary fad comes to its bitter end and the dweebs who vomit it out onto the wire go back to their night jobs cleaning toilets at Wendy’s.

Epoch Fail

originally posted: 13-Feb-2009

(title borrowed from this great xkcd cartoon…if you get it, Happy 1234567890 Day to you; if not, don’t worry about it.)

 Today is Friday the 13th. I’m not normally a paraskavedekatriaphobic but today tested me. I started the day taking the car to the dealer because the brakes were grinding. Before you jump all up in my stuff about how my lazy ass let the brakes go that far before getting them fixed, let me tell you two things: 1) last time I was at the dealer, they said they were fine, but bring it in “in the springtime” for new pads, and 2) the fucking pads never made that squeaking sound as they were dying. I may be deaf as a stone, but I’m telling you, I’d have heard squeaking brake pads. You don’t just hear that sound, you feel it in your teeth. My son would have screamed about it for sure, and he rides in that car every day. Neither did Sharon hear them when she used the car earlier this week. It was a big, bad, enraging surprise when I heard and smelled the carnage back there the other night. I thought I had more time.

 So yesterday I made the appointment and I brought it in this morning. I like this dealership, mainly because they don’t treat me like a dimwit but also because they have a comfortable waiting area with free coffee, food, and best of all, WiFi. Normally when I get the car fixed I bring the laptop and work. That was the plan today, too, until the lithe, winsome customer service rep (they sent her on purpose, I’m sure) came out to the lounge to break the news to me: I needed the front rotors machined, needed new ones in the back, and there were two pending warranty operations to be done, including a replacement of the power steering system which would itself take at least two hours. Waiting there for 4+ hours wasn’t practical, even in the relative comfort of the lounge. 

 My new friend Dana clearly sympathized with my plight. She looked at my books and laptop, put her hand on my forearm—not inappropriately—and asked, “how about if I give you a loaner so you could go to the office and come back later?” She got me! She sensed my white collar dilemma, my burden. Lovely, empathic Dana knew that a Master of the Universe like myself could really only conquer the world properly from my expansive executive suite, and I had to get there post haste. Her warm, easy charm and gracious offer made me temporarily forget that I was going to spend close to a thousand bucks because her goddamned brake pads didn’t emit a death squeal. 

I followed her back out to the service counter to fill out the loaner form. Working it like a cruise director, she offered to go to my car which was now in the garage to get my insurance card, I-Pass, etc. I’m sure if I would have asked her to clean my sunglasses or help me rent a Waverunner she’d have done that, too.

Another service guy started filling out the computer form for the loaner while my new old friend was away. Turns out that insurance card was a key part of the deal; they won’t loan a car without it, which makes sense. I gave him my license and credit card and we had an excruciatingly awkward conversation about the state of concealed carry laws in Illinois while he worked. (I have no idea.) Just as dearest Dana returned with the stuff from my car, Shooter told her he was having a problem with the computer. It was rejecting my application. She stepped around to look at it, brow afurrow, then as she realized what was going on, she looked up and flashed me a suddenly and significantly less genuine smile. Dana said, “John, it seems your drivers license is expired. We can’t loan you a car.” It’s true: it expired on my birthday about 3 weeks ago and I’ve been too busy to deal with the misery that is the Illinois SoS machinery.

Epic. Epoch. Awk. Ward.

Now my two new friends and I stared at the ground for a minute, perhaps hoping it might come up with something to say. Professionally graceful Dana, unsurprisingly, found it first: she said one of the porters could give me a ride to work and he could come back and get me later. A fine offer on its face and a workable solution. But our bond had been irreparably broken. I was no longer another yupscale Acura owner paying too much for service; now I was a low-rent hustler from somewhere in the city who didn’t even have a drivers license, trying to steal a loaner. I’d moved down about 15 castes in a heartbeat. She wasn’t my cruise director any longer; now she was more like a bouncer at the sort of nightclub where they’d laugh until they wet their pants if a guy like me even dared to get in line. Her easy charm was replaced by the kind of disappointment I haven’t been on the receiving end of since Catholic school. She walked back to her service area a beat or two slower than before and didn’t look my way again. 

I had thirty minutes of silence to ponder this precipitous change of status as I rode to work. My chauffeur spoke about as much English as I do Spanish, so other than “turn that way” two or three times, there was little to say, though at one point somewhere on Dempster I’m pretty sure I heard the brake pads screaming from the car next to ours.

(updated 02-15-09 @ 6:53am for a couple of grammatical errors that were killing me)

"Chicken Little"

originally posted: 10-Feb-2009

Someone I was (past tense) following on twitter today referred to Obama’s press conference last night as a “Chicken Little” performance. This tweet had the unintentionally hilarious “Top Conservatives On Twitter” hashtag (#tcot) associated with it. So I wondered, “is this a thing?”

It is. In just under 24 hours, over 13,000 blog posts using this delightful turn of phrase erupted like zits. Clearly the talking point got out in the wingnutosphere.

Now, we can and should debate thoughtful conservatives, if there are any left, on the merits  and implementation of a stimulus package, the bank bailout, etc. I have lots of questions and doubts about these massive spending packages. We all should.

But to call the president “Chicken Little” for pointing out that there IS, in fact, a crisis, is why I quit writing about politics on my old blog. The modern Republican party’s “reality” has lapped my ability to satire it.

The sky is falling, assclowns. The sky, plus the planets and stars and galaxies and dark matter and all the rest, are crashing down on us at a rate heretofore unseen.

"Chicken Little." This is why no one takes the GOP seriously any longer. Good luck with the 30 or so senate seats you’ll be holding after 2010.

Numbered days in 773

originally posted: 01-Feb-2009 13:17

The last couple of weeks have been more hectic than usual. My wife and daughter are both sick, work is more interesting (in the ancient Chinese curse sense) than usual, and I’ve had a busy gig calendar. This recent spike of activity occurs on top of the constant background white noise of stressors like the failing economy, raising sane children, elder care crises, etc. Set these plot elements in the middle of a winter of Yukon dimension and you’ve got something like a Tarantino remake of The Shining. Here’s motherfuckin’ Johnny, motherfucker!

 Last week, though, one bell tone rang clear and true out of the cacophony. One long-standing mystery is solved; the constantly permuting TODO list that crowds my head is infinitesimally more manageable.

We’ve really been struggling with figuring out where we’re going to send our son for first grade. We’ve got a year and a half to worry about it, as we have kindergarten locked up next year. For beyond that, we’ve been talking about trying to get into the CPS magnet program, having him tested for the gifted programs, investigating the local neighborhood school, considering private/parochial options, etc.

Thanks to King Richard II, he just took a whole lot of of the complexity out of it. If he cares so little about the school system that he’d put the failed manager of the nation’s worst mass transit system in charge, a man with absolutely no background in education at all, then why should we care, either? 

 Basically, I’ve realized that there’s no way in hell my kids are going to be enrolled in CPS. Ever. I’ve realized that if I want to put my kids through public education1, it’s going to be in a suburb somewhere. One problem solved.

 The reasoning is simple. When King Richie II decreed that rank political crony Ron Huberman—a guy who presides over what is arguably the worst mass transit system in any major city in America, a career machine cog/foot soldier/flunkie in the patronage army, a guy who has exactly as much experience managing a massive school system as my dog—should be put in charge of administering the education of Chicago’s children, it’s clear that the city just isn’t serious about public education. By extension, it’s clear that the red-faced, stuttering, mumbling podium pounder just isn’t serious about keeping people like me in the city, either.

 I’m certainly not opposed to change or taking chances with inexperienced people in management roles. Hell, I was the beneficiary of a similar decision when I worked at Goldman. I was put in charge of a huge technology system and department that I was only partially familiar with. Ultimately, I think I did OK and so the decision worked out, both for the company and for me.

 What I had going for me at the time they promoted me was a track record of prior success and a thorough understanding of at least a subset of the entity, though. It’s hard to see where Huberman has either. The latter shortcoming is obvious—-check his résumé. And to the former, I think the results are at least  open to interpretation. Many point to his improving the CTA’s relationship with Springfield as evidence that he did a kick-ass job. That Mike Madigan will return his calls is a fine thing, no argument. That’s a necessary condition for running a big city bureaucracy, but not a sufficient one.

 Relationships aside, at the nuts and bolts level, the CTA remains a laughingstock among public transit systems in the US. The trackage is a rusty joke; the rolling stock is filthy and graffiti-covered. The buses are an even bigger farce, frequently breaking down in traffic and bunching up along “express” routes. It strikes me as funny that Huberman prioritized GPS tracking of them. Now you can track in real-time just how late they are, except of course if you’re in the demographic which mostly uses the buses, because then you’re less likely to have access to the required technology.

And for this, arguably the worst mass transit system of any of the ten largest cities in America, we get to pay among the highest rates! CTA: bad product and outrageous cost. Obviously, put this guy in charge of education. It’s not like it’s important or anything. Not like the 2016 Olympics! Now that’s important!

For the record, I don’t think his predecessor, Arne Duncan, was any better. Obama’s promotion of him to be Secretary of Education is the #1 WTF moment since the election for me. What has Duncan accomplished? The CPS under him, like the CTA under Huberman, just doesn’t pass the stink test. At least Duncan had some background in education. Huberman’s background is picking up Richie’s laundry.

I will stipulate that the magnet and gifted programs in CPS are top notch. If I knew my kids could get into those, we’d be OK. We probably will have them tested and enter the lotteries since it doesn’t cost anything. Obviously, there are no guarantees of either, though. I think they’re the most brilliant children in America, of course, but I’m not deluded enough (yet) to think the gifted program testers will agreeAs for  the lottery-based magnet programs, well, by the time I find out I didn’t win the lottery, the kid’ll be doing 1st grade at Queen of All Saints, risking a lightning strike and asking me who this Jesus fellow is every night, and I’ll be frantically looking for property on the cheap in Oak Park or Evanston.

 Excluding private options, which are parochial or exorbitant, we are left with our neighborhood school. It only offers half-day kindergarten and has no aftercare, so it’s logistically a non-starter. Even if we could find somewhere to warehouse the kids for the other half of the day—and warehousing is all you can hope for around here—the school’s performance ranking seals the deal. It’s barely above the mean for CPS. I’m sure that places it in the lowest third statewide, though those numbers are hard to get. Bottom line, there’s no way my kids are going there. Homeschooling actually would be a better option, but as a favor to society at large, I should probably refrain. You’re welcome.

Anyway, the epic suck of CPS was well known to me before the promotion of Huberman; it’s not a new revelation. What is new is the diamond clarity that KRII is more interested in crony/flunkie/patronage politics than in fixing CPS’ problems, or in even acknowledging that there are problems. So people like me, who have the means, will continue to leave the city in droves, which cripples the revenue base, which leads to less money for schools and transit…etc. Good luck with that formula, Richie. But do please enjoy your Olympics.


1 The libertarian/objectivist crackpots who insist public education cannot succeed are wrong, as usual. Off the top of my head I can provide a dozen counterexamples to disprove their thesis. Public school can and does work, just not here.

Pay-Rod: don’t go away just yet

originally posted: 30-Jan-3009

Watching the Illinois state Senators get up one by one yesterday and vote to send Helmethead back under his rock was riveting, moving television. I’m glad I was home (and the kids were cooperating) to see this historic event unfold live.

And while I’m thrilled that the creepy jerk who I once chatted up in a neighborhood park while we were pushing our kids on the swings (really) is going away and going away mad, I don’t want him to go away forever just yet.

It’s the sign of the topsy-turvyness of the world we live in, but John Kass got it exactly right today. Rod needs to pull up a comfy chair in US Attorney Pat Fitzgerald’s office and start dishing. Rod knows where every single body is buried. The corruption that drove him out of office is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg and he knows just how deep below the surface it goes. There must have been hundreds or even thousands of quid pro quos offered and accepted over the last six years, many of them involving other state-level pols who are just as dirty as he. I might even dare to dream that there are some top city- and county-level crooks who could stand to spend some time under some federal court sunlight.

So, while I’m jacked Blago will be off my TV screen for a while, I’d happily welcome him back if he were able to get the rest of these scumbags indicted, impeached, and imprisoned. If he really wants to do something for the people of Illinois, as he soliloquized for 45 minutes yesterday, this would be a great place to start.

25 Things

originally posted: 27-Jan-2009 10:09

Cross posted from my facebook profile…one of these little chain mail memes wherein you list 25 things about yourself and pick 25 more people to do the same. Seems like a reasonable thing to put here as this blog is in the “getting to know you” phase still, right?

  1. I could read pretty well by age 3. So well, in fact, that Dad and Grandpa used to bring me to taverns and win money betting that I could read bottles, signs, etc. Mom and Grandma were not psyched to learn this, and put an abrupt end to the practice.
  2. I won my first guitar playing craps at age 7. It was at a Catholic school “casino night” thing, and my Grandpa let me roll the dice for him during his turn. I went on an insane hot streak, probably winning 15 points in a row. When it was over, Grandpa let me redeem the chips he won on my rolls (along with all the tips I got from other players) at the prize counter. I chose a little nylon string classical guitar.
  3. I am overly sensitive to tooth pain, thus I viscerally loathe and fear the dentist. I once went 10 years between visits. When the dentist asked why I was gone so long, I told him it was because he said the next time I came in, we’d talk about pulling my wisdom teeth. So I didn’t come in. (Still have the teeth, btw.)
  4. I wish I was one of those people who loves working out, the people who think it’s fun and get endorphine highs and all that. But I’m not. I find solitary exercise a crushing bore. When I go to the gym, or for a run, or whatever, I am consumed by thoughts of the 300 other things I’d rather be doing.
  5. I had volatile hair in the 90’s. I first sported a spectacular mullet, then I grew it out to one length and most of the way down my back, then I buzzed it short and dyed it red (think Annie Lennox). People who’ve met me after that period are usually rendered speechless when confronted with pictures. I’ll try to scan some and post.
  6. I’ve lived in Cook County all of my life except for two years in Bloomingdale (about which the less said, the better). I’ve got no reason to leave: friends, family, culture, career — it’s all here. The weather sucks, sure, but that seems like kind of a wimpy reason to bail, doesn’t it?
  7. People who say you regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did do just haven’t fucked up as spectacularly as I have on a few occasions. Trust me, there is nothing on this planet more regrettable than carelessly breaking the heart of someone who loves you.
  8. Eight…eight…I forget what eight was for.
  9. I once said that I’d gladly trade the Bears’ Super Bowl win and all six Bulls championships for a single White Sox World Series win. Having finally experienced it three years ago, I can report that I was right. Those other championships were fun, sure, but I had to choke back tears when Konerko squeezed that final out. Related: going to WS Game 2 in the freezing rain (Konerko’s grand slam and Podsednik’s walkoff winner) with Dad, Julie, and Todd was close to an out-of-body experience.
  10. I have MUCH more respect for Cub fans who hate the Sox than for these people who claim to be fans of both teams. Hating the Cubs (Sox) is an absolute, non-negotiable prerequisite to being a true Sox (Cubs) fan. If you’re a fan of both, you’re a fan of neither.
  11. Maybe the best part of being an adult: I’ll never eat liver again.
  12. Right after college, I was in a horrific traffic accident. I wasn’t hurt, but the woman in the other car died a few months later from the injuries she sustained that night. Though it was 100% her fault — she blacked out from medication she was taking and ran through a stop sign — I think about that night all the time. Sometimes I still have nightmares where I see her bloody, battered face.
  13. My “day job” career is fine. I don’t hate it, which is more than many people can say. But if I could go back and do college again, I’d do it sober and become a doctor. Obviously, being a bona fide rock star would trump all legit careers, but I’ve learned that’s not something you can just choose. You have to be obscenely lucky, and, these days, have great hair and/or giant breasts.
  14. I was born essentially blind in my left eye (20/400), but my right eye had 20/20 vision. Discrepancies like that are extremely rare. I had Lasik done a few years ago on the left eye and now it sees better than the right eye, which is starting to slip a bit lately as I get old. Having only one working eye all those years means I had no depth perception, which led to occasional hilarity when fielding fly balls against a clear blue sky.
  15. I have nearly perfect pitch. Sing/play a tone and I’ll tell you what note it is and if you’re sharp or flat. I can also transcribe most music I hear straight to paper. That skill and $2.25 gets me a ride on the Blue Line.
  16. That said, I have a really hard time hitting pitches accurately while singing or playing fretless instruments. I don’t know what’s up with that. So I compensate by being really loud.
  17. Staying with the sensory/musical theme, sorta: I can’t whistle. All that comes out is this sort of windy noise. Inexplicable.
  18. I married WAY over my head, more than anyone I know. Most the guys I know have wives they don’t deserve; this is a truism that probably applies to all men, because we suck. None moreso than me, though. I’m extremely lucky. I still don’t know how I did it.
  19. Hands down, the scariest thing I’ve ever attempted is trying to raise children. I wish I could enjoy it all the time like most people seem to do, but worrying about fucking them up for life keeps me up at night far more than anything else.
  20. I don’t play video games, not because I don’t think I’d like them, but because I know I’d be hopelessly addicted to the point of neglecting family, personal hygiene, nutrition, work, etc. That way madness lies.
  21. I’m really very shy. Many of you who are reading this will think that’s ridiculous…but think back to the first time you met me. I probably said 2 words. Writing all this stuff about myself is extremely difficult.
  22. I found my first gray hair when I was 14. By age 30, it was 50/50, and the last few years there’s no brown left at all. And it doesn’t bother me a bit.
  23. Occasionally I wrestle with the ethical and environmental problems created by eating meat…but never enough to stop eating it. I am trying to cut back at least, and to seek out organic meat that was humanely treated.
  24. I wish I could master a visual art. But for reasons I suspect are related to #16 above, I can’t get the ideas in my head to appear on the paper. I intend to take up sculpture some day, maybe that will work.
  25. In college, when taking one of those “purity tests” that was going around (remember those?), I cheated to raise my score because I was afraid I’d have the lowest score of all my friends. Even after cheating pretty significantly, I was still the”least pure” by a wide, wide margin.

Lost Losing Me

originally posted: 21-Jan-2009 23:23

Don’t worry, I won’t put any serious spoilers here, but you may still want to come back later if you haven’t seen the Season 5 premiere of Lost yet.

So many great geek TV series of recent vintage have been lessened to varying degrees by the introduction of time travel as a primary plot device. On the lower end of the suck scale, I remember several X-Files episodes that sucked because of it, though they weren’t part of the main conspiracy arc. I believe Buffy flirted with it as well, but obviously their narrative was clear and strong and basically linear in time. At the other end of the scale, Heroes has become essentially unwatchable, and the reason is simple: when you start moving people or things around in time, you break causality. And when you break causality, you break plot.

For the last, you know, 20,000 years of storytelling, an elemental truth is that things happen in stories as a result of things that happened previously (or, rarely, no reason at all, but we can ignore that special case for the moment). Hamlet kills Polonius which makes Ophelia go nuts. Ilsa broke Rick’s heart in Paris so he went to Casablanca to forget. The chicken wanted to get to the other side so he crossed the road. A ⇒ B ⇒ C.

Of course, you can still spin a good story if you present the pieces in an order other than the events happened. Pulp Fiction’s a fine example. But in spite of the meth-fueled editing sessions, the events of the story had a clear causal relationship. Implication holds up.

By the way, you can still tell a good story about time travel, but it’s going to have to be SO flippin’ good that the observer can suspend disbelief over the inevitable paradoxes. Terminator was awesome, but you have to ask: why didn’t the Terminator just go back another 25 years and kill Sarah Connor’s mother, who presumably was not nearly as much of a bad ass as her daughter would be? They must have known Sarah was a tough nut in the future, right? How else did John Connor get so nasty? Fortunately, this problem doesn’t matter in the end because they blew shit up in a most epic fashion, and Ahnold and Linda ruled. So we ignored the obvious problems and watched the fireworks.

Generally, though, if you break the bonds of implication as a logical construct, you can do anything. And that’s not very entertaining, is it? Maybe if you’re doing Dada or something purely abstract, fine. David Lynch could probably pull it off. But if Ophelia could have gone back in time and warned Polonius not to be in the castle, then…what exactly? Would we get the skull monologue? I doubt it.

So while Lost up until this point has flirted with time travel at the margins, mostly re: Desmond’s ability to somehow travel through time differently than everyone else, it was not critical for moving the story forward until the introduction of the fuzzy physicist Daniel and his ridiculous log book last season. I found that to be irritating, too, but it still didn’t seem to be integral to the main narrative of the story, which to me is the plight of the Oceanic 815 passengers before/during/after their 100 days on the island. And the flashbacks/flashforwards are not a problem, either — that’s just the Pulp Fictiony way of revealing plot points out of sync with their actual time line.

But tonight, within the first half hour, it became clear that jumping around in time is now going to be a major focus of the remaining 30-something eps and how everyone does or does not get back to the island. Even if it’s not the focus, it’s an integral part of the underlying plot mechanism now and it can’t be undone (heh. ironic.). 

Their pathetic efforts to cover this up, by the way, by having fuzzy Daniel introduce a “rule” where you could be in the past but not change it — excuse me? — actually is worse than the failure of causality. Now the writers are acknowledging to us that they know time travel ruins stories, and they are trying to pad the landing a bit by giving us Time Travel Lite. Tastes like shit even if it is less filling. So, they came right through the fourth wall to tell me they’re giving me garbage. Insulting.

I don’t know how they’re going to resolve this. I’m willing to give them a few eps to work it out, since they’ve stumbled in the past and generally regained their step in short order. But those past problems were over irritating characters or trivial subplots that were easy to write out. What we have right now, this fundamental change in storytelling, is just a formula for jerking the viewer around. Now, everything we think we know isn’t necessarily true any longer. Everything we see from now on could be false. Not in a fun, challenging way, just a fucking irritating way.

I get enough of that in real life, frankly. If that’s how they want to roll, I’m out.

Hello, World

originally posted: 18-Jan-2009 08:09

#include <iostream>

int main(int, char **)
    std::cout << "Hello World" << std::endl;
    return 0;

I guess it has to start somewhere. Fully cognizant of the risk of forever losing most potential readers less than 10 characters into a new blog’s very first post, my inner nerd fed caution to the pigs and figured to lead with the canonical first program. 

Those of you with your own inner geeks will get it immediately, but for those of you without: above is the minimal program you’d typically write when learning a new programming language, in this case, C++. It just prints a little message on the screen and exits. It’s a way to get comfortable with a new environment, a sane method to explore an unfamiliar venue with something known, simple, and predictable. 

The metaphor extends fairly naturally. I’ve actually been blogging for a long time in a different environment. So, part of what I’m trying to accomplish right now is to get used to Typepad and the mechanics of publishing this blog (settings, layout, editors, etc.). I’m writing a “hello world” post to get comfortable in the physical environment here. So far, so good. With programming languages, once you know a few, it gets easier to learn new ones, and learning blog publishing tools is similar. 

In another, more important sense, though, the metaphor breaks down. Today, I publish a blog with my own name and face (sorta) up there on the top. That’s new. For the last fourish years, not counting a couple of too-long hiatuses, I’ve been putting my thoughts out there in blogville pseudonymously. (Sorry, no link.) For reasons personal and professional, all too stunningly boring to enumerate here, I decided that I’m going to start writing as me. I’m still the same guy who wrote all that other stuff, so I don’t expect to say much different or differently, but it does remain to be seen whether having my own name on the banner will function as an editorial filter. I hope not, but I just don’t know yet.

One thing I will not do in this inaugural post is publish a laundry list of topics and themes I intend to cover here. I’m just going to see where the intersection of the sets of my available time and stream of consciousness leads me. I should, however, probably mention why I chose a ridiculous title like “Shouting Down Entropy.” That’s still a work in progress, as is the layout, etc. of this page, and I may well change all of it as I find my way. But for now at least, if there is any interconnecting thread to the random ideas that I want to get off my chest in this forum, it’s that I’m consumed to near distraction by watching the effects of entropy around me lately. 

You can follow the link to learn all the nerdly bits about entropy if you enjoy integrals, differential equations, and the like, but if not, an easy way to think of entropy is as a measure of the “randomness” or “disorder” of a system. The classic example is an ice cube. The water molecules in an ice cube are all lined up in a neat, ordered lattice structure, giving the ice cube shape. The molecules don’t move a whole lot relative to each other, which is why the ice cube is “solid.” But if you let the ice cube melt, the same water molecules can go all over the place in a puddle — the structure is gone. The location of each water molecule relative to the others is much more random. The entropy (randomness, disorder) of the ice cube has increased substantially as it melted into water.

Where entropy gets interesting to me, especially lately, is in how the Second Law of Thermodynamicscomes into play. That law says that the entropy of systems tends to increase over time, or, less charitably, everything falls apart eventually. I’m recently surrounded by examples which lead to the inescapable conclusion that everything I can see is most definitely falling apart. This is not new, unexpected, or even terribly sad in all cases. This has been going on forever; maybe I’m just more aware of it lately. But it’s much on my mind, and the notion of increasing chaos around me will in all likelihood inform a lot (though certainly not all — that would be a huge downer) of what I have to say here.

OK, enough with the geekery. Thanks for stopping by. Please comment if you’re so moved. Hope to have more soon.

update, 2009-01-18 11:34am: fixed a lame typo in 2nd graf of 1st post on blog. auspicious…

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