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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Wal-Mart is Evil

The PBS show Frontline recently did an episode on Wal-Mart, called "Is Wal-Mart Good For America?". I had advance warning of this show, but never got around to watching it. Fortunately, a friend e-mailed me the link today.

I've never had much love for Wal-Mart. It is an American success story that grew into an American nightmare, a juggernaut that hurts its employees, the communities where it places its stores, the customers who shop there, and ultimately the American economy at large.

A commenter on one of my entries on vote suppression made me aware of a phenomenon called Whirl-Mart, a sort of performance art/civil disobedience protest against Wal-Mart. (After all, the activities of the "Whirlers" technically count as "trespassing". Remember, Wal-Mart once threw somebody out of a store - I think they had her arrested - for writing down prices on a piece of paper. Comparison shopping. "Always Low Prices - Just Don't Check Us On Them.") I prefer to vote with my feet, and my money, by not shopping at Wal-Mart. (Most of the time, anyway.)

One of the greatest mysteries of my life is the fact that while I despise Wal-Mart, I fondly love its warehouse-club sibling Sam's Club. From top to bottom, Sam's has a completely different feel to it than Wal-Mart. Maybe this is some nascent sense of elitism on my part - Sam's is a members-only club, while Wal-Mart is open to everyone. I dunno. But I do know this: Wal-Mart is evil. Evil.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Unpaid Overtime and Unstable Economies

I keep hearing that the economy is doing OK, but I'm just not seeing it. I keep hearing that people are working a lot of unpaid overtime and I do see it, because I'm working with a lot of people who are doing it and I'm doing it myself.

I was musing on these two facts this morning when I realized that they're directly related. The just-barely-passable economy is the direct result of a lot of people working unpaid overtime. Such a system is exquisitely unstable; if enough people decide that they're not going to work long hours for no extra money, suddenly productivity will drop, and the economy will begin to collapse.

Once upon a time there was such a thing as the 40 hour workweek. This was the result of a lot of people making a lot of sacrifices and doing a lot of hard work to make sure that the rights of the workers were balanced against the needs of industry. But over time the 40 hour workweek has eroded and more and more people find themselves working 50, 60 or more hours a week, with mandatory "overtime" (unpaid, in many cases) and weekend work.

Spending more time at work means spending less time on everything else. Most Americans are already putting in between 5 and 10 hours a week just commuting to work. How much time is left for family, for socializing, for relaxing, exercising, and getting involved in the community? Not a hell of a lot. And frankly, when you're done with work for the day or the week, you really feel pretty damned drained, and not really up to doing anything much more vigorous than eating dinner in front of the TV or surfing the 'net.

On September 11, 2001, before I watched the towers collapse like water fountains that had just been turned off, my friends and I watched unbelievingly as dark objects plummeted with agonizing slowness against the bright backdrop of the World Trade Center. "Are those birds?" I asked. My mind was doing lightning-fast physical modeling of the air currents around the buildings, the updraft caused by the flames, the turbulent forces that would be running along the faces of the buildings, the consequences of a bird getting too close...they weren't birds. They were people. My mind wouldn't let me see that for a long time, until our makeshift monitor-turned-TV showed closeups of the people. Falling. Falling because, faced with the choices of certain death in the flames caused by burning jet fuel and the thick black smoke of incinerating workspace and workers, and the possibility that they might suddenly find themselves able to fly, they chose to leap from an unimaginably great height to fall, fall, fall, faster and faster until they hit terminal velocity and then, cushioned by air, fall at a constant speed until, several eternities later, they struck the ground and died as their bodies were torn apart by the harsh realities of physical law.

I watched them and was reminded of the grim joke that no one had ever died wishing that they had spent more time at the office. What wouldn't these people have given to have not been at work that day, to be able to live out the rest of their lives with their families and friends instead of dying at the office because some religious fanatics felt that the best way to express their moral values would be to slam passenger jets fully-loaded with fuel into gigantic office towers full of innocents and infidels and people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. People who had just gone to work that morning. People who probably thought that work was a pretty goddamned big part of their lives.

I decided that day that I would need to reprioritize the way I look at work and play, work and family, work and everything else.

But we've forgotten that. We've come a long way from that day, and we're in a situation where our economy is precariously balanced on the backs of workers who have forgotten that family and friends and life are more important than the thing we do for money. It's something we need to remember. And it's something we all need to do something about.

And now, at long last, I've taken care of a bit of unfinished business. I didn't mean to. It didn't start out like that. But that's where it went.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Black Friday

For the second year in a row, I got together with some friends and plowed into the insanity of Black Friday.* (This isn't technically true: I overslept last year and greeted them in my driveway, disheveled and dressed in my night-clothes, at 4:30 in the morning and told them I would catch up with them later. Catching up with anyone on Black Friday is well-near impossible, and would be completely impossible without the aid of cell phones. Our catching-up didn't occur until much later in the morning.) I didn't do this because I was looking for anything in particular; I did it partly for the social experience of it all, and partly to document my observations and see what I could learn.

We stopped first at a store called The Bon-Ton because one of my friends wanted to get something there - I'm not even sure what. We ran about the store grabbing things here and there, and after a little while took our places at the end of a 40-person line at one of the cashiers. And this is where the problems started to appear.

The checkout we were waiting at came equipped with two cash registers**, but only one cashier. Another nearby checkout had four cash registers but only two cashiers. I sensed a pattern.

A woman behind me explained this dearth of employees as being the fault of the kids these days, who don't want to get up early and go to work. I listened to her prattle on, loudly, for a while, when I decided that she had directed enough of her words at the back of my head for me to count myself as part of the conversation. I suggested to her that the real reason for the lack of staffing probably had more to do with the deep discounts the department store was offering on Bali Bras and thousands of other items; once people had gotten up early, made their way to the store for a 5:00 AM opening, and chosen their items for purchase, they had already committed themselves in their own minds to buying those products regardless of staffing levels. So the store could cut staffing without suffering any ill effects - and would save a pretty penny on the costs of the people who would otherwise have simply helped get customers out of the store that much more quickly. Understaffing inconveniences customers, puts added pressure on employees, but saves companies some money. And hey, isn't that what it's all about?

After we made our purchases, our group temporarily split up. One friend and I headed back to her SUV to begin loading it with packages, while the third member of our party headed off to Electronics Boutique to try to get some new game at a special sale price. After loading up the SUV we made our way back through The Bon-Ton and through the mall itself. We called our friend who by this time was in line to get the item - since new, hot games are not actually kept out where customers can get them, but are kept behind the counter or in the back office. After what seemed like an eternity of waiting - but which was really probably something like 30 minutes, starting at the opening of the store - our friend made it to the front of the line, where the clerk informed him that he thought they had just sold the last one. Sorry. Can't be bothered to check. Next, please.

Understocking is just a variant of the old bait-and-switch scam, where a retailer claims to have an item in stock, but when the customer comes looking for it, it turns out the item just sold out. However, the retailer notes, there just happens to be a similar product in stock, which also happens to have a much higher profit margin. Surely the customer does not want to go away empty-handed...? But with understocking, no particular effort is made to follow through on this scam, which is actually considered fraudulent and criminal. Instead, the customer is simply presented with a storefull of other items. Surely, the customer thinks, I should not go away empty-handed?

After hitting a few more stores we were all starting to get a little punchy and a lot hungry and we stopped for breakfast, which was surprisingly overpriced. (The surprising part is that these didn't appear to be special "Black Friday" prices, but the restaurant's regular high prices.) We then made it to the one store I had wanted to go to, A.C. Moore, to buy a heavily discounted sale item ($27 instead of $39.) Of course, getting there two hours after the store had opened I had no real expectation of finding the item, and I was right.

Then we moved on to our final stop of the morning, where I did something I'm not very proud of. I bought something in Wal-Mart. But that's a story for another time.***

* For anyone who doesn't know, Black Friday is the term used to describe the day after Thanksgiving, which is the "official" start of the Christmas shopping season. It got its name not because of the misery inflicted on both shoppers and retail employees by the effect of having massive crowds converging on malls and stores in an effort to secure "bargains" that exist in extremely limited quantities and are sold at the "sale" price for only the first few hours of the day, but because this is the day that retail operations generally go "into the black" - that is, they finally start to show a profit for the year, as opposed to being "in the red" or showing a loss for the year. This is itself fairly frightening: eleven months out of twelve just to break even?

**This is an archaic term used to describe the touchscreen, keyboard, cash drawer, and credit card line setup at most checkouts. Once upon a time cash registers were mighty pieces of hardware that were operated by pushbuttons and made great ka-ching noises when they opened, the sounds that you can hear at the beginning of Pink Floyd's "Money" from Dark Side Of The Moon. Please don't ask me to explain those last nine words or I will become sad.


***Brief preview: Wal-Mart is evil. Pure evil.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

As D.B. Echo awoke one morning from uneasy dreams...

I think I should be able to count as "work" time those hours I spend dreaming about work. And not just dreaming, but actually doing work in my dreams, including some fairly advanced mathematics (which is part of my job), particularly on the morning of a major holiday. Granted, I came to the same conclusions I had already come to yesterday, so I hadn't really accomplished anything new. But that's hardly a requirement; I can prove the same things day after day and still have to go back and prove them again.

The issue of whether or not I would need to go into work tomorrow (which is scheduled as a paid holiday, for me and for most Americans) was resolved when we realized that nothing that I had done yesterday had brought any of our projects to a conclusion, and nothing I could do tomorrow would either. The projects will get done just as quickly if I go in or do not go in. I choose not to go in.

At the end of the day yesterday, one of the people I work with ran a completed project down to another department for the next step of the process. Now, she and I are the two most high-strung people in the department, but that is where our physical resemblance ends. She is small and energetic while I am large and - well, surprisingly limber for someone as large as I am. But a minute after she left the security perimeter that surrounds our department, I heard a "Code White" - a medical emergency - being called in what I thought was the area directly outside, along the path that she would be traveling. Now, this was after 5:30 or 6:00 in the afternoon, when most of the people qualified to deal with medical emergencies had left for the day and the long holiday weekend.

I ran (well, walked vigorously - it had been a long day) out of our area and peered down the most probable corridor of travel for her. I did not see any large crowds of people standing around the body of a small attractive blonde woman, so I dashed down to another corridor and came up empty again. Death is considered a spectator sport in our facility, and even someone simply collapsing would be sure to draw a crowd. There were no crowds to be seen in either direction, and no telltale flow of people indicating a nearby spectacle.

I retreated to our area and decided I must have been mistaken. The call came out again - more frantic this time - and I realized it must have been in another area. A minute or so later my friend returned to the area and asked if I knew what the Code White was about. We laughed when I told her I had thought it was her, that maybe her heart or brain had exploded while she was running through the plant. We laughed some more, and then agreed that it is probable that this will happen to one of us in our department, and most likely that it will be one of the two of us.*

It's sad to watch a job that you once enjoyed become more and more stressful and less and less rewarding, but even sadder if you're experiencing it firsthand. The return per unit effort and return per unit time have dwindled in the past few years as the returns have remained constant and even dropped while the effort and time demanded by work have skyrocketed. This isn't too bad for people who are paid on an hourly basis who actually get paid regular time or even overtime for extra hours worked, which is why most of our staff is on salary. The more hours you work when you're on salary, the less you get paid per hour.

Sadly, this is not unique to my industry, which is part of the problem. Alternatives are limited. You can quit your job, but then where do you go? Use your skills and experience to land another job doing the same job somewhere else in the same industry, where things may be the same-but-worse, and you will have all of the same problems minus the seniority and built-up vacation time? Or chuck it all and go for an entry-level position in some other industry where maybe after a few years you can hope to work your way back up to the level of the job you left? This over-a-barrel situation is being exploited to the hilt by employers, who see no need to provide incentives to stay. Where ya gonna go, tough guy?

But such is the state of our current economy. And enough people benefit from having a semi-immobilized pool of highly-trained stagnating employees that it is unlikely that any industrial evolution will cause things to change. So I am increasingly leaning in the chuck-it-all direction. But if I do, then what? That's something I'll have to start to seriously think about.

*Update, 7/17/07: Ironically, on February 27, 2007, the company informed both of us that our services would no longer be required. Wheee! Let that be a lesson, kids, on where hard work, dedication, and a willingness to sacrifice get you in the corporate world!

Monday, November 22, 2004

Happy Hallowhog!

It's amazing how, after two weeks of walking in freezing and sub-freezing temperatures, 42 degrees is suddenly uncomfortably warm. (It was 47 degrees Friday morning, but I didn't get around to mentioning that fact until now.)

A friend of mine and I invented the idea of Hallowhog over dinner a few years ago. We were talking about the way holidays are clustered in the Winter and tend to flow into each other, much like the cities along the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. from Boston to Washington, D.C. flow together into a continuous band of light pollution called the BosWash corridor. (As anyone who has flown from Logan to BWI at night can tell you, this corridor is more than just a conspiracy of cartographers*; it is an unbroken sea of orange light, the glow of all of the sodium vapor lights in all of the urban and suburban areas that form it.)

Hallowhog, unsurprisingly, begins with Halloween (October 31st) and ends with Groundhog Day (February 2nd). We toyed with the idea of pushing the date out to include Valentine's Day, which by rights should be a Spring holiday but is caught in the very ugliest part of Winter, but we decided Hallowhog sounded better than Hallowtine's. Hallowhog encompasses Halloween, the Day of the Dead, Election Day (not a holiday, but it should be one), Veterans/Remembrance/Armistice Day, the end of Ramadan, Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November), Advent, the Winter solstice, Hannukah, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day (everybody loves a good boxing match), Kwanzaa, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, Russian (Orthodox) Christmas (it always snows on this day in Northeastern Pennsylvania!), college football Bowl season**, Twelfth Night, Epiphany, Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday, the Super Bowl, and Groundhog Day. (It also encompasses my friend's birthday and my birthday, which should each be major holidays - well, his already is, although it's ironic that the birthday of a teetotaller should fall on one of the two heaviest days of drinking on the calendar - the other, of course, being St. Patrick's Day.)

Hallowhog is a nice season because you have 25% of the year to celebrate it, and it's really hard to be late with cards. (If you're very late, it will actually count as being early for next year's Hallowhog.) Still, it's odd how much mental distance there is between the first two major parts of Hallowhog, Halloween and Thanksgiving. Even though the temporal distance between Halloween and Thanksgiving is about the same as the distance from Thanksgiving to Christmas, the first two holidays seem much farther from each other. Thanksgiving is seen as the beginning of the Christmas shopping and decorating season***, but it seems like Halloween is something best put away for next year as of November 1st. Christmas decorations, on the other hand, should be left up until at least the Super Bowl, if not later.

As we enter its fourth week, let me be the first to wish each and every one of you a Happy Hallowhog!

* See Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

**If you're from outside the U.S., please don't ask me to explain what college football Bowl season is. Almost any other American has a better grasp of this concept than I do.

***At least, this used to be true. A few years ago I saw a display of Christmas ornaments in a major department store one week after the first day of Fall - just eight days previously, it had been Summer. Now most stores have Christmas displays up in mid-October, and many cities do their Christmas decorating in mid-November. I'm proud to say that Nanticoke still doesn't have its Christmas decorations adorning Main Street yet, although this may be less a case of traditionalism and more a case of poor planning or lack of funds.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Going out

I'm going out to hear a friend's band tonight. I've been going out quite a bit lately: I have previously heard her band, Blue Sundaze, on October 30th, and I went to hear her play solo on November 3rd and 17th - both Wednesdays, which is really something for me, although I did cut out early each of these two nights, and I skipped my dogwalk the following mornings.

I also went to hear another friend's band, Manchester Blue, on Thursday, November 4th. Again, I left early that night and skipped the dogwalk the next morning. (That was also a night for Indian food, my first time in a long while.)

The next few weekends will be busy, full of post-Thanksgiving events, Christmas preparations, and a few parties thrown in. Work shows no sign of letting up, even over the holidays, but I've had some vacation time between Christmas and New Year's locked in since about June, and I still have a double-handful of days left to play with that I have no intention of losing. I have received assurances that our vacation days will not expire at the stroke of midnight on December 31st (they're usually good until the end of March), but I have learned over the past 15 years that in business promises are not worth the air they're breathed on, or the photons that make up their e-mailed images.

But why am I talking about work? This is the weekend, and I'm going out!

Thursday, November 18, 2004

O.D.B. R.I.P.

On Sunday I heard that the hip-hop singe...umm, artis...er, that Russel Jones, the guy known as O.D.B., Ol' Dirty Bastard, had died.

I never thought too much of O.D.B., nor did I go out of my way to hear his music. "Ghetto Superstar", a work done collectively with Pras from the Fugees and the ever-gorgeous Mya and based on Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers' "Islands in the Stream", was on the charts around the time I was going to clubs, and "Baby I Got Your Money" was hard to avoid a few years back. And I've heard of the Wu-Tang Clan, a band that O.D.B. was one-ninth of and which was the punchline to the hysterical "Race Draft" sketch on Chapelle's Show.

My favorite memory of O.D.B. was from back when he and Mya and Pras were performing "Ghetto Superstar" on some MTV awards show. The director (or whoever was in charge of calling the camera shots) had done his or her very best to avoid any shots of Mya, who was wearing a red outfit that appeared to be painted on, during the entire performance. At the end there was a view of the stage from stage left, as Mya walked off, Pras pulled back, and O.D.B. wandered out to the front of the stage to shake hands and talk to the crowd. Suddenly Pras dashed out, grabbed O.D.B., and pulled him back away from the front of the stage - which promptly exploded in a pyrotechnic grand finale. As CMJ Magazine noted, O.D.B. had been saved by Pras - saved by Pras! That's something to live with, for both of them.

MAD Magazine used to run betting odds for the causes of death of various celebrities. Anyone who had put money on O.D.B. dying the way he apparently died - not by violence, or from a drug overdose, but from natural causes - would be very rich right now.

Desperately Seeking Jen

Does anybody know what happened to Virtual Jen's website? Every time I've gone there for the past few days, I've been getting a prompt to "Enter Network Password." Failing to do that, I get a "401 Authorization Required" that says, "This server could not verify that you are authorized to access the document requested. Either you supplied the wrong credentials (e.g., bad password), or your browser doesn't understand how to supply the credentials required." Then it adds the amusingly recursive "Additionally, a 404 Not Found error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request."

Jen, I hope you see this! Did you put your blog behind a firewall or something?

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

More on the death of checks and balances

I heard this reported on NPR yesterday, but I found it in another source that some people might find less objectionable. This was reported yesterday in The Christian Post:


Frist: Specter Must Back
President's Judicial Nominees

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist withholds endorsement of
Sen. Arlen Specter for Senate Judiciary committee chairmanship and says Specter has yet to make his case.


'...Frist* said he expected the chairman of the Committee to be "responsible to the feelings, the wishes, the beliefs, the values, the procedures that are held by the majority of that committee. That is, in this case, the Republican caucus on that committee, the Republican committee members."


'Additionally, the chairman, explained Frist, should not only "have a strong predisposition to supporting that nominee sent over by President Bush...to a Republican Judiciary Committee," but also "on the floor of the United States Senate."

'Frist said the chairman also has the duty to ensure every one of the President's judicial nominees receive an up-or-down vote. He discussed the possibility* of the "nuclear option," which would prevent filibusters by only requiring a majority vote of 51 to pass a judicial nominee...'

So it sounds to me like Frist is saying that the role of the Legislative branch - or at least of the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee - is to essentially serve as a rubber-stamp for the Executive branch's nominations for lifetime appointment to the Judicial branch. Or am I misinterpreting the phrase "strong predisposition"?

* I have corrected The Christian Post's typos here: they originally spelled Frist's name "First", and spelled possibility "possiblity". I believe they have an opening for a proofreader.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Entangling alliances

I've increased the international presence here at Another Monkey by adding a link to j's secondcup.org. "j" is an old pen pal from way back with whom I had lost touch for several years. She's based in the Philippines.

So now, from the comfort of this very site, you can take mighty strides across the globe to England, Norway, Australia, the Philippines, Canada, and then hopscotch around the U.S. to California, Indiana, North Carolina*, points unknown, upstate New York, and various locations in Pennsylvania. (The Northeast is heavily represented, but that's because I personally know most of the Northeast bloggers.)

Stop by secondcup.org, and enjoy!

* Sorry I missed you first time around, SuperG.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

There ain't no Blue States, there ain't no Red States

In one of my previous incarnations I was a statistician of sorts. More precisely, I was one of two Statistical Process Control Coordinators for a major Compact Disc manufacturer. What Statistical Process Control is, and why it is at once beautiful, powerful, effective, and woefully ignored, is a story for another time.

It was during this time that I became acquainted with Edward R. Tufte's book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. This book is also beautiful, powerful, and effective. Humans are animals who depend primarily on our sense of sight, and we would do well to understand how information can best be presented by visual means. More people should be familiar with this book.

By now most people in the U.S. have seen maps of the Red State/Blue State division that developed during the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. Most people can tell you whether they live in a Red or Blue State, and many arguments have sprung up over why Blue States are intellectually superior to Red States, or why Red States are morally superior to Blue States.

The U.S. Electoral system is based on (in almost all states) a winner-take-all approach: whichever candidate gets the most votes in a given state gets all of that state's Electoral votes. The Electoral votes for each state are equal to the number of Senators and Representatives that state has in the U.S. Congress. The number of Representatives will vary based on a state population census taken every 10 years, but the number of Senators is fixed at two for each state. The Electoral system therefore gives a statistical advantage to less-populous states, in that their Electoral strength will be out of proportion to their actual share of the total population - which is one of the reasons why a candidate can win the Electoral vote even when the other candidate wins the popular vote. (See here for a good example of the disproportionality: California has a voting-age population 66 times greater than Wyoming, but has an Electoral strength only 18 times greater. Each Electoral vote in Wyoming represents 123,333 voters, while each Electoral vote in California represents 443,636 voters.)

But more importantly from a visual representation of data point of view, there is a lack of geographical proportion on the map of the United States. Larger states are not necessarily more heavily populated. Utah is more than twice the size of Pennsylvania, but does not have twice the population. But on Election night, Utah was colored solid red, and Pennsylvania was solid blue. The visual message was: big state red, small state blue. Red bigger than blue.

For someone looking at the Red State/Blue State map of the U.S., the visual message is: What a blowout. There are a lot more Red States than Blue States. How can anyone think this election was close? But the reality is, it was close. And the divisions between Red and Blue are a lot blurrier than most people realize.

Robert J. Vanderbei of Princeton University has created the "Purple Map" of the U.S. popular vote, a map that gives a county-by-county breakdown of the U.S. color-coded along a continuous scale from all-red (100% Bush) to all-blue (100% Kerry). Unsurprisingly, most counties come out as some shade of purple, and much of the Red/Blue distinction starts to fade.

While the Purple map of the popular vote helps to dispel the Red/Blue illusion of the winner-take-all approach (which is, however, reality when it comes to how the Electoral votes are counted), it does not address the geographical illusion. A large, sparsely-populated county will have a disproportionately greater visual impact than a more densely-populated county that is somewhat smaller.

Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman of the University of Michigan built on Robert Vanderbei's work and presented the popular vote data on a map called a "population cartogram", which allocates area based on population. Their analysis is worth taking a look. Go on. Look here. I promise we'll wait for you.

On a county-by-county level, a county with a large population will appear larger on a population cartogram than a county with a smaller population, regardless of the actual geographical size of each county. When the county-level "Purple Map" is combined with the county-level population cartogram, a much more visually meaningful representation of the popular vote results. Now the map resembles the side of a volcano, with islands of cool blue rock surrounded by flows of hot lava. An analysis of the blue rocks and red flows will yield far more insight into voting patterns than do the Red State/Blue State maps.

Thanks to Vanderbei, Gastner, Shalizi, Newman, and others, we can see beyond the Red and the Blue and watch as much of the perceived disunity throughout the country fades to purple.

Also thanks to President Bongo and Jerry, two commentors over at Adam Felber's Fanatical Apathy, for showing the way to these maps.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Tired

It has been a very intense and exhausting last few days at work and next week promises to be much worse, with several quick-turn projects and a significant portion of our staff out of the office. I need to start stocking up on red wine...for my heart. Work is just something I do for money. No need to drop dead from stress.

I've stepped back from the twice-a-day posting schedule that I've been maintaining lately. Mostly this is because I am wiped out from work, but also because I am emotionally exhausted from the election. And I don't want to just post for the sake of posting. Unfortunately, some of the things I want to post will require a considerable commitment of time on my part, and right now I just want to lay down and watch Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

I don't know if I will be able to post much next week, but I will try. Maybe this weekend, too. I have more end-of-season garden work planned for tomorrow, assuming I'm not dealing with 2 to 6 inches of snow.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

A misplaced comment

I'm trying to post a comment on a friend's site, for a posting from October 29. But for some reason I'm getting a "Comments not allowed" message when I try to post it. So I'll post it here.

I know it's 8 days after the election, and 12 days since this post, but the truth is never moot. You say:

"A vote for John Kerry will also reward the senator himself for his meretricious and deceptive testimony before Congress — testimony that Vietnam still celebrates in its museum in Hanoi for helping them win the war against the Americans. Thus, a vote for John Kerry spits in the face of honorable veterans. Thus, a vote for John Kerry is dishonorable."

Is this the museum display you are referring to? It's not in Hanoi, and it shows Kerry in a different capacity than what you describe. If you know of a museum exhibition like the one you describe, can you point me to information about it?

Or is it possible you were duped?

Aurora!

Haley and I got to see an Aurora during our walk this morning.* The first leg of our walk is downhill towards the North, so we generally have an excellent view of the northern sky when it isn't obscured by corner streetlights. (The corner streetlights are the blue-white mercury vapor type, as opposed to the orange sodium vapor ones used downtown that I mentioned in a previous post.)

The Aurora was of the curtain type, looking like a series of searchlights aimed straight up on the other side of Plymouth Mountain. But each beam, or each fold of the curtain, varied in intensity as I watched - some brightening, some fading.

Superstitious people see Auroras as omens. They also see comets, meteors, eclipses, crepuscular rays, the positions of the planets, the year 2000, and the Red Sox winning the World Series the week before a Presidential election as having supernatural implications. (The Red Sox winning the World Series by the dismal light of an eclipsed moon? Sheesh, if that's not one of the Seven Signs...) I am not a superstitious person. Unfortunately, a lot of people are. And many of them let their superstitions guide their hands at the voting booth last Tuesday, to re-elect a President who sees himself as a major player in the events prophesied in the Book of Revelations.

For me, the Aurora was a thing of beauty. And a sign that I may be having radio trouble again.

*I think we have determined our lower limit for air temperature for dogwalks: 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-7 degrees Celsius.) Good thing there was no wind this morning.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Still sick, but different

So I am still sick, but it's different from what is was yesterday, or Sunday, or this morning even.

Sunday it started out as a sore throat, moving up into my sinuses overnight. Yesterday I would have sworn it was an allergy, based on how I felt Sunday night and most of Monday. Monday afternoon I had one of my cold-ish symptoms - alternating nausea and hunger. This morning I felt fine, and figured a bracing hour-and-twenty-minute walk in sub-freezing temperatures would help clear my sinuses. Today it feels more like a cold, complete with coughing, sneezing, and runny nose.

(This morning there was one other symptom: sloppier writing than usual. In this morning's blog entry I made at least three major errors - I referred to Sunday as Monday, I forgot to paste in the link to the page on Auroras, and I mentioned how the "reflection" of streetlights was "reflecting" off snowflakes. I have corrected these three errors, but how many more did I miss? And how many more have I made in this entry?)

The Hot Zone is Richard Preston's "Terrifying True Story" of the Ebola virus, a nasty bugger of a disease that makes the terrible mistake (from a Selfish Gene point of view) of killing its hosts. But before they die - and as they die - they go through a series of stages that help to spread the disease: bleeding from every orifice, massive convulsions, and a few others I don't remember (it's been years since I read the book.)

Like Ebola, most other diseases go through several stages in the human body. It's interesting to have a garden-variety (I hope) illness and sit back and try to observe its progress as it races through your body, working through its life cycle and doing its damnedest to propagate itself to other hosts. If your eyes burn, how long do they burn? If your skin gets sensitive, when does that happen, and how long does it last? Dizziness? Coughing? What order does it all come in? When will the disease have run its course?

In a few minutes I will change my clothes, brush my teeth, wash up, pop some antihistamines, and go to bed. In the morning (God willing) I will wake up to a whole new set of symptoms. Something to look forward to, I suppose...

Snow

First snow today. Actually it was yesterday that I saw snow for the first time this season, just as I was about to walk into work. The snow was very small and very sparse, and I wasn't able to catch any on my coat to see what kind of flakes were falling. But from what I could see as they fell, I think they were either rods or barrels.

And then I experienced snow for a second time yesterday. It was about 9:00 at night, and I decided to poke my head outside to see if there might be another auroral display (there had been a big one Sunday night, but I missed it.) The Auroral Activity diagram suggested a high level of activity possibly brushing down to Pennsylvania. I looked outside and saw weird stuff in the sky. The sky seemed to be a mottled orange with patches of wispy blackness. I know that during an auroral display clouds will show up dark against the glowing sky, but I couldn't see any stars, which I would have expected with an aurora. The sky seemed to be curdling, and it had an odd effect on my eyes: I felt like each eye was seeing a different picture, and my brain was trying unsuccessfully to integrate them. After a few minutes of this I started to feel the first snowflakes hitting my face. I think what I was seeing was actually the glow of downtown Nanticoke's orange sodium vapor streetlights reflecting off thousands of snowflakes suspended above my head and falling from a considerable height. But then what were the black wispy things? Patches of snowflake absence? In any event, the snow only lasted a few minutes, and didn't amount to anything.

But this morning was the first snowfall that I actually traveled through this season. Haley and I got to experience a passing snow shower this morning on the other side of town as we walked along in the 30 degree air (30 degrees Fahrenheit; that's something like -1 degree Celsius.)

Now the race to the real start of Winter: the first sighting of an SUV on its roof. It sounds like some roads have turned icy, so today I may get my chance.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Sick

I had an excellent lunch with a very good friend yesterday, in a restaurant in Tunkhannock that I would probably not otherwise have ever heard about. I spent Saturday gardening and doing yard work - raking leaves (we have gone from 5% leaffall to 95% leaffall in just one week), applying mulch to my blueberry bushes, getting some grapevine cuttings and perennial flowers out of pots and into the soil to overwinter, and continuing to apply random bits of dead vegetation and assorted compostables to what will be a new garden at some point in the future.

I must have stirred something up while doing all of this. I didn't suffer any ill effects Saturday night, but Sunday night was a different story. The sore throat which had been building throughout the day shifted upwards into my sinuses, which proceeded to swell up in a way that caused me to stop breathing many times last night. After about two hours of waiting for this to resolve itself, I dragged myself out of bed and took some antihistamines. These did the trick, as I knew they would, but they also had the usual unpleasant side effect that I have learned to associate with them. I hope this sinus irritation goes away soon, and I don't need to use the antihistamines too much longer.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Adam Felber is a very funny guy

If you're not reading Adam Felber's Fanatical Apathy, you're missing out on one of the most wickedly funny sites on the Internet. Check out "GROUP ACTIVITY: HEADLINES FROM THE 2ND TERM" and join in the fun!

The Masters of Meme Manipulation

Unsurprisingly, there is a movement afoot to block Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter from becoming chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and this movement is being spearheaded by the new power brokers in American politics. This from the New York Times:

...the Republican officials said that continuing resistance to his taking the chairmanship of the committee that examines judicial nominees was being fanned by conservative talk radio hosts and groups outraged over his comments.

I don't listen to Right-Wing Radio if I can help it. I don't care to, I don't want to, and I'd rather not let my ears be assaulted by the hate-filled diatribes of the right-wing radio personalities. But a lot of people do.

I don't listen as a habit, but I have heard enough to have some understanding of how they work. These "conservative talk-show hosts"* appeal to the lowest and basest parts of the human consciousness: fear, prejudice, hatred, xenophobia, paranoia, greed. And they package what they say neatly into easily-digestible sound bites, no processing required.

They are masters of meme manipulation. I don't have the expertise to explain to you clearly what a meme is, but here's the Wikipedia entry on memes, and it's worth a read. Here are the first two sentences:

A meme (rhymes with "dream", but comes from memetic and memory) is a unit of information that replicates from brains or retention systems, such as books, to other brains or retention systems. In more specific terms, a meme is a self-propagating unit of cultural evolution, analogous to the gene (the unit of genetics).

Memes are simple and powerful. Once a person accepts a meme, they tend to pass it along to others. Meme replication actually follows a viral model, in that each person who takes in a new meme is capable of passing it on to many others.

There's no value statement being made about memes here. They can be true or false, it doesn't really matter as long as they spread. They are the basis for the transmission of urban legends, many of which, while false, become accepted as truth by society at large. (Which is why most gas pumps these days are graced with stickers sternly warning you DO NOT USE CELL PHONE WHILE PUMPING GAS. Cell phones can't make gas pumps explode, but enough people believe they can for it to have become an accepted truth that they do.)

People who listen to "conservative talk-show hosts" tend to be inclined to believe anything they hear from them, so any memes spouted on these shows have a direct path into the true believer's brain. They will then embrace these statements ("John Kerry loves to windsurf", "there were only 3 tons of explosives missing from Al-Qaqaa"), make them their own, and repeat them as often as possible - and since many of the people they repeat them to were likely to have listened to the same show, they will find their beliefs reinforced by the agreement of others. In a short time, the meme has gone from a statement made by some guy on the radio to being accepted common knowledge among a significant portion of the population.

The secret is the simplicity. Democrats and other "liberals" tend to apply critical thinking to statements they hear, rather than accepting them instantly as the Gospel truth. They understand that the world is a complex place, that there are layers of causality behind any event, and that you can rarely sum things up in a phrase that will fit on a T-shirt. Not so the fans of "conservative talk-show hosts"**, who see the world as a much simpler place, where any opinion can be encapsulated in a few short words. And they yearn for those few short words that they can accept as the truth.

In an earlier post I suggested that what we needed to do as part of the national healing process was to instill critical thinking skills in more people so that they would be less inclined to blindly accept the statements that are fed to them through the Right-Wing communications network. But perhaps at the same time, we Liberals need to embrace the power of the meme as a means of communicating simple ideas very quickly. We shouldn't sink to their level - we should stick to the truth, for example - but the meme may be the only tool for winning back the hearts and minds of the people who spend their mornings taking their marching orders from a voice on the radio.

*I disagree with this phrase in every way. These guys aren't "conservative", any more than George Bush is a Conservative. Hell, I call myself a Liberal, and I've got more conservative values than they do. The things that they broadcast can hardly be called "talk shows" - the venomous spewing that they do sure as hell ain't "talk". And the term "host" implies a certain level of politeness and courtesy which is completely alien to these people.

**I am in no way implying that everybody who voted for Bush falls into this category. But this does represent a significant block of the people who did, without whom Bush would have probably not have been elected by the slim margin that he was.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Or maybe not

Arlen Specter is already backpedaling on statements he made (or was quoted as having made) yesterday regarding future nominees to the Supreme Court. This is in response to a coordinated "Conservative" attack on Specter after these statements were reported yesterday.

If anyone is wondering about what I mean by a "near-absolute loss of the system of checks and balances", this is a prime example. Simply retaining the nominal structure of the government doesn't mean quite so much when Bush partisans control both houses of Congress and are likely to make up a significant proportion of the Supreme Court within two years. Any dissent by Congressional Democrats can be ignored; any dissent by moderates can be quashed.

Meanwhile, Bush continues to indulge in a delusion of a mandate. Can a President be removed on the grounds of being profoundly mentally ill? I suppose not, when the condition is clearly shared by many millions of supporters who will vigorously fight any attempts to shine the light of reality on their delusions.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Moderate

Two of the most conservative, pro-Bush, gimme-my-$300 Republicans in my office were having a conversation today.

"Did you hear what Specter said about Bush and Supreme Court nominations?"

"Yeah. Jesus Christ, what an asshole."

Why? Because Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, who is likely to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, is a moderate Republican who has put Bush on notice that there will be at least some checks and balances in place when it comes to Supreme Court nominees.

The Bush fanatics want to see him granted absolute, unfettered power, and they not react well to anything that may be an obstacle to achieving that end. Don't be surprised if Specter is punished in some fairly sinister way by the Bush machine. I salute him for his courage.

Not like Cincinnatus

This isn't the America I wanted to wake up in today.

I wanted this to be over. A hard-fought battle won, I wanted to be able to put aside politics and focus on life again - and maybe on healing bruised friendships. Like Cincinnatus, who led Rome during a time of crisis and, when the crisis had passed, immediately returned to his farming.

But the fight isn't over. The only way America will ever pull out of this is if a far larger proportion of the American people develops the critical thinking skills that will allow them to resist being snookered by the likes of Karl Rove, and will allow them to see through the veil of manipulation that led a high proportion of them to arbitrarily assign the characteristic of "Morality" to one of the most deceitful and unethical administrations in modern history. Our job now is to make the people who voted for Bush smarter, or at least less stupid. And to minimize the damage that the near-absolute loss of the system of checks and balances in American government will have on our once-proud nation.

Thank God for Arlen Specter. This is one Republican I can happily say I voted for.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Over

Dammit.

The politics of fear beat the politics of hope. Idiots brainwashed by right-wing radio shows have demonstrated that they are a force to be reckoned with. America has traveled further down a path from which it might never be able to turn.

Things are bad, and they will get worse. And the supporters of Bush will share fully in the blame. Four years from now, will they still be able to maintain their delusion of blamelessness and infallibility?

But it truly is a time for healing. So let's just hope that the poor, sick, deluded idiots who voted for Bush get the healing they need. Too late, the damage is done, to the country and the world. Kiss checks and balances goodbye. Hello, government without restraint!

Adam Felber ran a mocking presidential pseudo-campaign of his own, and he, like Kerry, issued a concession speech today - and it's the speech Kerry should have given. Check it out here.

Waiting

Still no clear winner, and maybe there won't be one until the absentee and provisional ballots in Ohio have been counted, which (by law, I have heard on the news) will not be for 11 more days.

I am disappointed. I was hoping for a Kerry landslide, something that would give a clear message. Instead we find ourselves wrestling in margin-of-error territory. Again.

The thought of another four years of Bush is terrifying. Another four years of America being viewed as a Christian Fundamentalist nation. Another four years of arrogance and swagger, all hat and no cattle. Another four years of Bush acting out his Book of Revelations delusions.

And at least two, possibly four or five, appointments to the Supreme Court.

Can America survive another four years? Can the world?

By the way, when does the Free World hold its election for Leader?

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Finally over, sort of

The polls closed in Pennsylvania a few minutes ago. Absentee ballots from overseas military personnel will be accepted until November 10, but for the most part, it's all over here except for the counting. And whatever follows that.

If you live in a more Western time zone and you haven't voted yet (and are eligible to do so), I'd really appreciate it if you would please get out and cast a vote for John Kerry. Thanks!

VOTE

It's come down to this. Today. Now.

Get off the computer and go out and vote.

Monday, November 01, 2004

A summing-up

I don't like conflict. My body is built for it. My mind is built for it. Either one will resist almost any assault like an iceberg resists a luxury liner, and either one can attack in response in a way that icebergs generally don't. But I don't like conflict.

Like many others, I have allowed myself to be drawn into the political conflict of the Presidential election because I feel its outcome is very, very important. Through the course of the last few months I have tried to use what meager persuasive powers are at my disposal to incrementally influence some small percentage of readers who have stopped by my site. In a little while, God willing, I will be able to return to non-political musings on life, the Universe, and everything. But for now, let me present a series of links to my previous political blogs - a summing-up, or a greatest hits, whatever you like.

First off, if you don't know where your polling place is, go here. This entry also has some information about your rights at the polling place, and some musings on vote suppression.

If you are still undecided, or if you are still wondering "Why should I vote for Kerry instead of Bush?", read this, and follow the links.

Vote suppression - the act of preventing people from casting ballots - is a huge concern this year. For general information on vote suppression, go here. To read more on vote suppression through fear of terrorists, go here. To read about the use of religion to drive fear into voters, go here.

For just one of the reasons why I want Kerry to beat Bush tomorrow, go here. There are also some good links here, including stuff on Grover Norquist, possibly the greatest threat to the American government - and a man who has the ear of the Bush administration. (If you don't know who Grover Norquist is, you definitely need to follow these links. If you understand who he is, what his goals are, and what his relationship to the Bush administration is, you don't need another reason to want Bush out of office.)

Finally, for some good old fun with bumper stickers, go here.

And please, vote for John Kerry.

Nobody dies tonight

Tomorrow, November 2nd, 2004, is Election Day. Everybody needs to stay safe, tuck in for the night, get up in the morning, and vote as early as you can.

What you do tomorrow will determine what sort of world you'll wake up in on Wednesday. Please vote for John Kerry.

A prayer before voting

(This post is slightly out of order, but I don't have time to write up a longer post before I go to work, and I wanted to get this out.)

A lot of prayers will be said before Election Day is through. Prayers that your candidate will win, or that the better candidate will win; prayers that neither Republicans nor foreign terrorists will succeed in disrupting the election; prayers that the long, drawn-out recount process from 2000 will be unnecessary; prayers that the voters, not the Supreme Court, will be allowed to determine the outcome of this election.

But I think there is one prayer that every voter should say before he or she casts a ballot. It is the Shepard's Prayer, immortalized by astronaut Alan Shepard shortly before he became the first American in space on the Freedom 7 launch in 1961:

Dear Lord, please don't let me f**k up.