Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hypnotizing Chickens

PowerPoint Ranger -- a military term used to describe someone who spends most of his or her time in front of a computer making PowerPoint slides. Some have even gone so far as to create mock badges, similar to the wings worn by paratroopers or aviators, which denote how many hours a person has logged in front of their computer on PowerPoint.

It was once said that an army runs on its stomach. Now, it appears that the maxim has been updated for the computer age...the U.S. military apparently runs on PowerPoint.

I expect that virtually everyone has sat through a mind-numbing PowerPoint presentation at some time. You know the ones...30 slides, the text getting eye-chart small, the presenter simply reading the bullets to you, the flashy animations that add nothing. While intended as a means of presenting key information quickly, clearly, and easily, more often than not the critical information within a PowerPoint presentation gets lost in a morass of competing bullets.

A number of years ago, I participated in a 1-day seminar given by Edward Tufte, a Yale professor, expert in information design, and author of a nice little zinger entitled "PowerPoint is Evil". In his surgical dissection of PowerPoint as an inadequate tool for presenting critical information, he pointed to a slide used by NASA engineers to address potential danger points due to cold weather in the space shuttle program shortly before the Challenger disaster. The key finding -- that the O-rings used to seal the rockets were at serious risk in extremely low temperatures -- was relegated to the last line and in the smallest font where it was guaranteed to get the least amount of attention. Sadly, that risk factor is exactly what caused the loss of the Challenger, an eminently preventable tragedy.

Of course, the fact-obscuring capabilities are apparently being put to good use by the U.S. military, according to today's New York Times:

Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.

The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A whole new meaning to "may I approach the bench"

Somehow, I thought I would be more shocked by Dalhia Lithwick's article about a death penalty case in Texas (where else). The convict, who has been sentenced to death, appealed his conviction based on the fact that the judge and the prosecutor (both of whom were married to other people) were secretly screwing like horny bunnies throughout the trial. Hmmmmm...I wonder if the judge's decision making might have been affected.

The shocking thing? The appeal was denied because his lawyer didn't file it soon enough. However, he wasn't able to file it until the judge and prosecutor finally admitted to having a long-term affair!

Following a spate of other convictions and Supreme Court decisions that ignore evidence, falsify evidence, reduce the rights of the accused, and led to a potentially innocent man being put to death, I guess I'm no longer capable of being surprised by the insanity that crops up in our legal system. Something needs to change. Until it does, just pray that you don't get arrested for something. God knows where you'll end up.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sleeping through 3AM

The inexorability of that water seeping up through our foundation and creeping ever higher on the walls downstairs, lapping at the base of the steps, and then climbing higher, embedded itself in my subconscious and then emerged late at night, every night. I'd never been through anything quite like that and it apparently stuck with me.

For two weeks following THE FLOOD, I woke at 3AM every night in a panic, certain that there was water in the basement or, in a particularly unpleasant moment, convinced that the moonlight reflecting on our polished bamboo bedroom floor was actually more floodwater.

At first, I would find myself dressed and downstairs, walking through the rooms to convince myself that the basement, while in need of repair, was actually relatively dry.

Then I managed to reach the point at which I would be out of bed and dressed but stop myself before I actually left the bedroom and headed down the stairs.

Then I reached the point at which I could stop myself after getting out of bed but before actually getting dressed. And then the next-to-final stage -- waking up but recognizing that I knew there was no water and that I didn't have to be irrational and get out of bed.

Finally, in the last week or so, my own minor form of PTSD receded like the waters that preceded it and I could sleep through the night without worrying about flooding. Now I just have my regular stressful dreams about work so everything is back to normal!

Sunday, April 25, 2010


I'm not sitting where I usually would be when writing. The chair is wrong. The wall behind my computer isn't right. The items I see in my peripheral vision aren't what I expect.

I'm a displaced person in my own home.

I never realized how much of a person of habit I'd become when it came to writing. My home office wasn't much to speak of, really. It was just a desk made of a varnished door resting on a filing cabinet and wire shelving units but it was my desk, my office chair, my blank wall with the small casement window above.

My wife's desk was to my left at a 90-degree angle but she never used it, preferring to write on her laptop upstairs in the living room. The "home entertainment" area with the couches and TV was off to my right and my noise-canceling headphones were always handy for when I needed to write when Jennifer wanted to watch TV. Eventually, in a larger future house, I hope to have a home office that will be mine, with a door that shuts and a window that looks out over something rather than providing a ground level view of the trunks of the arbor vitae growing along our property line. But for now, that desk and blank wall were my place to go, to immerse myself in writing over the last 5 years, and I now find myself displaced, my desk and chair unavailable to me as a result of THE FLOOD.

Everything has been moved out of the basement except the basic furniture. The basement is dry but in need of serious work before we can move our stuff back down there. And so I had no choice but to relocate. However, there was really no place to go. The guest room/Jennifer's studio is now a warehouse (and she is cut off from the antique drafting table I bought her years ago). Neither the bedroom nor the living room are suitable places for my iMac and as a result, I find myself in the kitchen.

There is a desk of sorts built into the wall between the fridge and one wall and here I find myself, perched on Jenn's drafting table chair with a phone next to my ear and the kitchen appliances all within 6-7 feet of me. My feet don't touch the ground and the chair just doesn't feel right. There's a window directly behind my computer and in my line of sight and, even with the blinds shut, random flickers of movement still catch my eye.

In the weeks following THE FLOOD and the relocation of stuff within the house, I haven't been able to write. I've barely even visited my blogs and postings to Facebook have been sporadic.

Part of it was just a lack of motivation...dealing with the water that filled our basement and the ongoing recovery just took a lot out of me.

But I've come to realize that the greater part of it was just that my habits and environment had been so dramatically disrupted. I'm not sitting where I expect to be or where I'm really comfortable. There's visual stimuli that I'm not used to, and in truth, I'm finding it hard to concentrate when my legs are swinging freely or tucked into the rail at the base of the drafting chair.

In the grand scheme of things, I have nothing to complain about and I know that. We didn't have to evacuate. No one was hurt and the items that we lost are virtually all replaceable.

However, amidst all of the physical damage and stuff we've had to discard, I've discovered that I lost my sense of place. It's strange. When I'm traveling, I can plunk myself down with my laptop and write wherever I happen to be. But when I'm at home, I am a creature of habit, habits that have been disrupted along with my environment. Now I find myself having to learn new habits and how to adjust to this new (and hopefully temporary) writing space. I need to rediscover...or sense of place.

And so I sit here, perched above the kitchen floor, trying to figure out what to do with my feet, ignoring the blinds and the window directly in front of my eyes, my noise-canceling headphones over my ears, and the soundtrack to "The Visitor" playing quietly to block out the incidental noise as I force myself to learn how to write again in this new space and not feel displaced anymore.

And when I'm done here, I'll turn my eyes back to the basement and the next stage in recovering down there with an eye toward eventually reclaiming my old, habit-filled space, at least for the time being.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

She's watching and celebrating

My maternal grandmother was a college basketball fanatic, especially when it came to the UConn Huskies. It didn't matter if the game on TV was the men's or the women's team. Either way, you could count on Babci to be watching and cheering them on.

My stepfather told me a story about how he dropped by her apartment once after she moved here to Rhode Island. She was watching the game and was completely fired up. He sat down and they cheered the men on. It was only after 20 minutes or so that he realized something...the game was a repeat. She didn't care.

We took her to a UConn-Providence College game in Providence a few years ago. I sat beside her as she rested in her wheelchair, overlooking the court, and she was clapping and cheering (and occasionally mentioning how good the young men looked in their shorts). The younger members of the crowd kept looking at the tiny 91-year old woman next to me and complete strangers came over to say hi and ask if she was rooting for PC or UConn. "UConn," she said. "Always UConn." Even last year, in the final weeks before she passed away, she still wanted to watch the March Madness games.

And so it's especially poignant right now, as we approach the 1-year anniversary of her passing. The UConn Huskies won the national championship last night. My wife commented "It's too bad Babci isn't here to see this. She's be having so much fun." Then she stopped. "Maybe she is watching and cheering for them."

I like to think so.

Congratulations, UConn Huskies. You've made my grandmother very happy.