Wednesday, April 29, 2009

See, it doesn't pay to be mean to people

Congratulations to Mitch McConnell and the rest of the conservative Republicans who actively shunned and sneered at Arlen Specter. I'm sure their total lack of support for the 5-term moderate Republican Senator, an ultra-conservative primary challenge, and their public vilification of anyone willing to actually compromise with the Democrats was all part of some grand plan. I'm just not sure what it was. Somehow, I don't think Specter's unexpected switch to the Democratic Party yesterday was quite what they imagined the end result would be.

The surprise announcement by Senator Specter appears to have simultaneously improved his chances for re-election, capped off a solid 100 days in office for President Obama (whose VP, Joe Biden, was instrumental in getting Specter to switch), virtually scuttled Republican hopes for future filibusters provided Al Franken actually gets seated as the junior senator from Minnesota, and sent Republican politicians and commentators into a paroxsym of spin that only an out-of-control merry-go-round could appreciate.

Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, the moderate Republican senators from Maine, must be feeling very lonely right now. Either that or they can ask for and will be granted almost anything by a Republican leadership that sees its relevance tumbling into oblivion.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Walking for a Good Cause

Perhaps I was lucky when I was younger. I didn't really know too many people with cancer. Now, almost every friend I know has been touched with it in some way and it has reached into my own family again and again. That's why I'm participating in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life in Middletown, RI, in 10 days as part of a team generously supported by my employer -- because the list of people lost to this disease doesn't need to go on.
and it seems like the list just goes on.

But it doesn't have to. I'm walking in this Relay to join others to raise funds that could bring a cure closer, to raise awareness among others, to raise a cry of joy and support for the survivors, and to raise hope that those who follow us won't have to face this particular challenge in the future.

I hope you'll join in this effort. Join a team for a Relay in your area, donate your time to advocate, make a contribution toward my walk and help fund research and the quest to find a cure, but don't stay on the sidelines. It's too important.

Thanks and good health to you, your families, and your loved ones.

National crisis? No biggie...I want my crime drama!

If you weren't planning to watch President Obama's news conference on Wednesday night, you'll have some other options thanks to FOX, which has declined to cover the event in favor of its regular primetime lineup. Leading the way at 8 PM on FOX: the drama "Lie to Me."

Feel free to insert your own jokes at the expense of FOX and its "Fair and Balanced" approach to news here...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Weird Thought for the Day

Here's a random thought that floated through my head this morning. After spotting a scene or two of "Sex in the City: The Movie" as my wife watched it and remembering a few of the scenes in the brilliant "Best in Show", I have to ask the question...

Exactly how do you teach a dog to hump a pillow or a leg on command and do you have to give the dog a treat when he does it properly or is the acts reward enough? Sit, stay, roll over, fetch -- these I can understand but this other one baffles me.

In truth, I don't really want to know but I figure it was a weird enough question that it just had to be asked.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Texting Comes Home

Sometimes, I'm an early adopter when it comes to technology. Other times, I find myself swept up into the technology at the latter end of the adoption spectrum not because I have a compelling desire to use it but rather because I don't seem to have a choice.

For the longest time, we just used our cell phones as cell phones. You know...dial the number, say hi, have a conversation, hang up. Of course, my wife had a basic cell phone that was turned on only when she needed to make a call, never when I needed to reach her but that was fine. When I got a Treo with something resembling a keyboard, I found myself sporadically using it for e-mail while I was out of the office and my laptop wasn't handy but still, it was just a phone. It was apparently capable of texting but really, why wouldn't I just call someone when I wanted to ask them something or tell them something?

Because certain people in my life don't answer their phones, that's why.

Apparently, the function of their cell phones is to serve as a text-based messaging system, 160 characters at a time, not actually as a tool for transmitting one's voice to someone else in distant parts of the globe.

It reached the point that my wife, a wonderful woman who candidly admits that she doesn't need to seek out the most advanced technology , actually said, "you know, I think I need to get a new phone so I can text." What spurred this on? The desire to stay in touch with two of the younger members of the family who seem to be pathologically incapable of anwering a phone but whose thumbs are so well trained that they can apparently text in their sleep.

And so texting came to our home only a few years after everyone else got on the text bandwagon. The scary thing? We can't stop now. If I can't reach my wife by phone, I immediately fire off a text knowing that odds are her cool new phone with the big screen and keyboard will be on and and if she can't get to the call, she'll text me back.

Texts fly back and forth between us and other friends and relatives though definitely not at the same pace as other members of our family. I haven't been able to prove it yet, but I'm pretty sure that I'll catch someone texting someone who is sitting right next to them at some family function.

I'm still not sure why this means of communication has latched on so securely. After all, it's fewer keystrokes to dial someone's number and just ask them a question than it is to carry out a conversation via text. Is it that people don't want to disturb other people with their conversations? Not a chance. Is is that we don't want people to hear what we're saying? Again, I doubt it. Is it the ability to not have to answer when it rings but instead to respond at your convenience? Perhaps. But in the grand scheme of things, I'm stumped.

All I know is that we've turned into a texting family out of necessity, now we can't stop, and I don't know why. At least it's not as out of control as this.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Battle of the Computer Chicks

Did anyone else notice the similarities between the New York Times' profile of Google's Marissa Mayer and her efforts to control and update Google's look and feel and today's Associated Press profile of Microsoft's Julie Larson-Green, who has been playing a key role in the development of the look and feel of the new Windows 7 operating system?

It looks like that while Google and Microsoft continue to battle it out in the realm of computer applications and cyberspace, their PR firms seem to be waging a similar battle with similar weapons and similar aim -- move the computer news beyond the stereotypical geek engineers and the applications themselves and put a more human and dare I say more attractive face on each of them.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

40 and The Void

April 17th was my birthday, the big 4-oh. Throughout the day, people asked if I felt any different now that I was 40 and throughout the day, my answer was "no, not really."

Sadly, that changed at 10:15 PM as I sat by my grandmother's bedside, holding Babci's hand as she passed away. Alone with Babci in her room, her thin hand resting in mine, I suddenly realized that she was no longer really there with me. It was stunning in its ordinariness. When someone with as rich and full a life as she packed into her 93 years dies, you almost expect something dramatic to occur, that there be a marker for the moment. But not tonight. Babci simply took a few final breaths and then departed quietly, with no fuss.

I was so lucky to have had her in my life for as long as I did. Most people don't get 40 years with their grandparents. But now that she won't be there to play cards with, to call me at work just to say hello, to try to slip a $5 bill into my hand with the instructions "go enjoy a nice steak", or to beam that megawatt smile she shared with so many people, there's an unmistakable void in my life.

Turning 40 isn't supposed to be bittersweet and birthdays should be a time for joy. In time, the pain and loss and grief that are so sharp and immediate, so palpable and wrenching, will fade. Even so, I know I'll always feel the ache of that void every April 17th, even as I blow out an ever-increasing number of candles and endure the over-the-hill jokes. At least I know that Babci will be laughing along and enjoying the cake.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Twilight Conversation

Sadly, I think we're now approaching the end. My grandmother, who had been failing and then rallied a bit over the last few weeks, is growing weaker. Since Tuesday, she hasn't been drinking any water or eating. I sat with her for an hour and a half last night, and while she woke briefly, communication with me, my aunt, and my wife was limited to gentle squeezes on our fingers and blinks in response to questions. While I could be wrong -- she's surprised us many times before -- this time feels different.

So I sat there in her darkened room last night, holding her hand and talking to her about not much at all, just so she could hear my voice and hopefully know she was not alone and that she is loved. As I did so, I found myself recalling episodes from my childhood that I hadn't thought of in years (I'm turning 40 tomorrow and the memory is the first thing to go, I've heard).

Before I got my driver's license, she would let me move her blue VW Rabbit in and out of her garage, rolling the length of her long driveway, and doing three-point turns in the turnaround just for practice. I don't know if I ever fessed up to lightly scraping the side of the car against the frame of the garage door and getting a strip of brown paint along the driver side door but I admitted it last night and threw myself on the mercy of the court.

She used to make grilled cheese sandwiches by flipping the plates in her waffle iron upside down so that the flat sides, not the waffly sides, pressed together. The result was a wafer-thin and very crispy grilled cheese sandwich that I think could safely be considered either a white bread quesadilla or the precursor of a panini.

When my sister and I would spend the night, Babci and my sister would share what had been my uncle's room, with its big bed, and I would sleep in the single bed in Babci's room. Filled with photos of my grandfather, her children and grandchildren, it was definitely a grandmother's room but without fluttery flowery things. There was a lone crucifix above the bed, occasionally adorned with palm fronds as the season dictated. I watched "The Exorcist" for the first time on late night TV at her house. Everyone else was asleep and when I went to bed at 2 or 3 AM, way too late and totally freaked out, I remember looking up at the crucifix and the small figure of Jesus and saying "you'd better work" even though I've never really been a believer. She believed though and I guess I thought I might be covered by association.

Last night I talked about all this and more. I think she heard me talking though I'm not sure if she understood. It was more for me, I guess, a reliving of elements from the 39 years and 364 days in which she is playing such an important part of my life. I'll be back again, talking to her tonight and tomorrow and as long as I still have her hand to hold as she held mine so many times in the past.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Geeking on Apple

Of late, I've been a bit distracted by two new pieces of technology that have entered my life. The first is a new iPhone. The second is Apple's new iPhoto application. Both are mesmerizing and moderately addicting in their own way.

First, there's the iPhone, which is quite simply the coolest piece of consumer electronics I've ever relied on. I wish I could say "coolest I've ever owned" but it's come into my possession courtesy of my employer, replacing a battered, quirky, and not altogether reliable Treo with Windows Mobile, but that's OK because it also means my employer is picking up the tab on the airtime bill.

First, it's seamless in its interaction with business applications at work. Only 30 seconds after I started keying in my account info, it was syncing e-mail, my calendars, my contacts, everything I need for day to day business. What a change from my Treo, which needed to pass data through two or three applications to get info from my Mac laptop into the phone. It's no wonder it managed to blow away my entire calendar twice in the space of two weeks.

Just days before my iPhone arrived, a reporter and editor I know told me, "it changes the way you work forever" and he was right. It's the first cell phone I've ever had that I wish more people would call so I'd have more excuses to use it. I can see why Bill Gates won't let his wife get an iPhone. Like the iPod did for my brother-in-law, it would immediately convert her to the ranks of Apple lovers.

Hypnotic is another way to describe the iPhone. The interface is brilliant, the applications available for it range from incredibly slick (the seamless interface between maps, navigation, and contact information) to the ultra dorky (look Ma, my phone can double as a digital level ideal for straightening the picture frames you have hanging on the wall!) to the "I don't know if this has any redeeming value but it's great for passing 90 seconds while waiting for the next meeting to start" (ummm...that would be either Pocket God or Bubble Wrap, hands down).

And then there's iPhoto, which is hypnotic in an entirely different way. The new version offers all the same features as previous iterations but also brings with it one major new twist...facial recognition. With a few clicks, you train iPhoto to recognize friends, family, co-workers, and anyone else showing up in your photos. Suddenly, it's incredibly easy to see every digital photo I've taken of my nieces, of my grandmother, or anyone else in the photos (though it does get confused by babies (but who doesn't) and once thought that some tree bark was my father-in-law, a situation easily remedied. And no, I haven't tried it on our cats yet.

As my wife watched HBO's In Treatment this evening, I instead spent 90 minutes or more adding face after face to iPhoto's memory, patiently telling it when it was right and when it was wrong. I just couldn't stop. Even now, I'm twitching a bit because I know there are people in my photo archives who I haven't identified yet or fully refined in the facial recognition system.

And you know what's really scary? I'm pretty sure the iPhone plays well with iPhoto. Somebody stop me before I geek again! Woohoo!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Twelve Angry Men Part II (aka "Getting to have a sidebar in court")

Tuesday morning, bright and early, found me carrying out one of the responsibilities of citizenship -- jury duty -- at the U.S. District Court in downtown Providence (sorry, I just can't bring myself to say "Downcity", the silly marketing term designed to make downtown Providence seem hip). As you might remember, I seem to have the unusual luck of being called like clockwork every two years or so.

Previously, my jury duty was always served at the state court in Newport. However, the last three times have been at the behest of El Federales though this was the first time I actually had to attend. The first time I received the summons, I was going to be on a business trip and, after sending copies of my plane reservation, hotel reservation, signed letter from God, and a talking ferret who could make my case in fluent bureaucratese, the jury administrators believed me and allowed me to skip it. The second time, the case was settled at the last moment and jury duty was canceled.

While I do grouse about jury duty, my complaint isn't about the duty itself. I'd actually be interested in sitting on a jury sometime and do find it all pretty fascinating. No, the issue is really that their timing typically stinks and I get the call at a time that really isn't very convenient. Yes, I know, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are sometime messy but it would be so much easier if, as my wife reasonably suggests, we were given a choice of three dates upon which to attend so we could work the messiness into our schedules a bit more conveniently.

Anyhow, I was one of 34 lucky souls gathered in District Court this week for the empanelling of two juries. Initially there was a lengthy bit of waiting around and then we trooped up the broad, sweeping marble stairs to the courtrooms above. This was definitely not like the state courtroom in Newport. This was gleaming and looked new. Video monitors were installed by each juror's chair to make viewing of evidence and presentations simpler, and white noise generators clicked on any time the judge and lawyers were in sidebar.

The first trial was the one that worried me. Expected to be two weeks in length, it pitted a motel owner against a local municipality in a dispute over a septic system and the approval (or not) to do business. Gripping stuff. No doubt we'll see it as a "ripped from the headlines" segment on a future episode of Law & Order. Thankfully, my name was not among those randomly drawn for the honor of being one of the 14 people who would be whittled down to 8 for the actual jury that would sit in judgment over a period of two weeks (ugh!).

Personally, my favorite part of the day was when the lawyers and court clerk went into an antechamber to select the 8 jurors who would actually hear each case. To pass the time, the judge offered a civics lesson, first explaining how the U.S. District Court fits into the legal framework of the United States and then later, how he was awakened at home at 2 AM to sign a search warrant to let the cops enter a house occupied by some not-very-nice people who had just taken possession of a large shipment of drugs. As for the U.S. federal court system, I had no idea that District 1 (out of the 11 encompassing the U.S.) includes not only the New England states but Puerto Rico as well. I can't quite wrap my head around the logic of that one. Was whatever district handles Florida booked solid when they had to divvy up the islands?

Anyhow, the second empanelment rolled around and when I heard the case details (woman and her then-boyfriend-now-husband were in a car accident and are suing the insurance company due to a dispute about what exactly was covered) I knew I was home free. Conveniently, the insurance company in question just happened to be the insurance company that has provided my car insurance since I was 16 and now insures my home and, when I had it, my boat. Not only that, but a few years ago, my wife was in a car accident (not her fault) that totaled her little Geo and our insurance company not only covered it but recouped our deductible from the other insurance company. Needless to say, we were very pleased with the whole affair. I knew that there was no way the plaintiffs' lawyers were going to want me on the jury.

And such was the case. While I wasn't among the first 14 to be called, one guy who was basically made it clear that he was going to do whatever it took to get off the jury. In exasperation, the judge told him politely to take a hike and then my name was called. Oh joy. Still, to avoid tainting the jury, I was called up to confer with the judge and lawyers in sidebar so I could tell my story. It's probably the only time I'll ever get to do that it and in truth, it was pretty cool. Still, when the names of the lucky 8 were read out, mine was not among them and I was released back into the world.

It was a relief -- busy times at my office right now -- but also a bit of a disappointment. Sure I had a boatload of stuff to do when I got back to work. And yes, you might not always agree with the verdicts or perhaps you might think that lawyers are scum. However, it's worth remembering that the system does work, by and large, in part because it's not nameless, faceless judges imposing verdicts but because it's people like the electrician, the former teacher, the self-employed single mom, the IT support technician, the electrical engineer, and the other people I met on Tuesday who are making the decision of guilt and innocence.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

It's just a matter of time

Congratulations to the citizen of Vermont, whose Legislature showed courage and compassion by stepping up in support of civil rights for all by legalizing same sex marriages and then overriding the Governor's veto to make it a law.

People can fight it and squawk all they want but this slow and steady race will eventually see same sex marriages embraced as it were across this nation. And when it happens, we'll all eventually wonder why it was so difficult to achieve.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Opening Day

It's like a breath of fresh air...Opening Day at Fenway. Delayed 24 hours due to weather, it didn't matter because the boys from Beantown were out on the field against the Rays. It ended with a solid 5-3 win and we've got 161 more games to go. Baseball is back -- in Boston, soon in Triple AA Pawtucket, Double AA Portland, and college ball with the Newport Gulls. Can there be a better indicator that summer is on the way? Play ball!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Prepare for the Peeps

Easter is almost here and with it comes the Peep invasion. Yes, those bizarre colored sugar-covered marshmallow birds are back and laying waste to teeth everywhere. But as this blog illustrates, we can fight back. They may be freaky but they aren't invulnerable (see here and here for details). And for a gateway to all things Peep, check out this site. Stay strong, people!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

CHIMBY or could it?

After all the talk about the struggles of dead-tree newspapers to survive in this economic climate, even after seeing the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle P-I close down (or go online only with a tiny staff in the P-I's case), it still did feel quite real that major papers could just up and vanish. It was a new version of NIMBY but instead of "not in my backyard" it was was CHIMBY..."couldn't happen in my backyard." That feeling lasted only until this morning when the NY Times and the Boston Globe both reported that without significant concessions in the next 30 days, the Time Company would have to give serious thought to shutting down the venerable Globe. That was a bit of a shock.

However, even as I sit here fretting, I know that I'm part of the problem. We haven't received a daily paper for years. We canceled our Providence Journal subscription some time ago because so much of its content was recycled from the Times and other national papers. There are a few glossy magazines we still get -- Newsweek (but do we still need to?), the New Yorker (that one's hanging around), and my guilty pleasure, Entertainment Weekly (really, just for the movie news...). We still get the New York Times' Sunday edition but I suppose that might eventually go away, too. Of course, so much of the enjoyment of that paper is the tactile sense of thumbing through it on a Sunday morning, flipping to the Week in Review first and then moving to the front section, arts, sports, business, the magazine. It's a Sunday tradition of sorts but it might not last.

Instead I read the Times online, I visit Slate, Politico, the Boston Globe and Boston Herald sports sections for Red Sox news, RealClear Politics and RealClear Sports, Huffington Post, and more. My home page opens to and the AP and NY Times newsfeeds. I enjoy my favorite comics online now and in color. I get my weekly podcasts of political news from NPR, the Times, the New Yorker, and Slate. The dead-tree news outlets are struggling in part because of me and people like me, who are turning to other faster, more dynamic mediums and not putting our eyeballs on the printed version and the ads that pay their bills. It's no wonder that even the Globe and the Times itself are struggling. If the Globe actually were to shut down, it would be a damn shame. And I'd read all about it on my computer screen.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ah, this explains a lot...

A professional contact of mine, well steeped in the mysteries of finance, brought the following commentary from a financial auditor to my attention. Can you guess which major entity is being discussed here?

While significant progress has been made in improving financial management since XXXX began preparing consolidated financial statements 12 years ago, three major impediments have continued to prevent us from rendering an opinion on the accrual basis consolidated financial statements over this period of time: (1) serious financial management problems at the XXXX, (2) XXXX’s inability to adequately account for and reconcile [intracompany] activity and balances between [business units], and (3) XXX’s ineffective process for preparing the consolidated financial statements. In addition to the material weaknesses underlying these major impediments, we noted three material weaknesses involving XXXX’s inability to (1) determine the full extent to which improper payments occur and reasonably assure that appropriate actions are taken to cost-effectively reduce improper payments, (2) identify and resolve information security control deficiencies and manage information security risks on an ongoing basis, and (3) effectively manage its [revenue] collection activities. Until the problems outlined in our audit report are adequately addressed, they will continue to have adverse implications for XXXX and [its shareholders].

Any guesses?

Yep, that's's the U.S. government. It's so messed up that even the Comptroller General General of the United States and the Government Accountability Office can't figure out what's going on. It reminds me of the budget cutting scene in "Dave" with Kevin Kline and Charles Grodin.

Sigh...I'd make some snarky comment about our tax dollars at work but apparently, we can't even be sure that's the case.

Welcome back, Tim Gunn!

Hurrah! After months of desperate fans crying out "Make it work, people!", the long-running lawsuit that prevented Project Runway from airing this year has been settled and we'll soon see that paragon of sartorial excellence, Tim Gunn, and a squad of catty designers going at it again!

I must admit...I never thought I'd like a reality show but when my wife introduced me to Project Runway at the start of its second season, I was hooked. Now it has turned into one of the few must-see shows on TV for me along with House, Chuck, and Life. As an added bonus, we'll have something new to watch this summer while those other three go into reruns. Bravo! (Only this time, it's on Lifetime.)