Friday, December 31, 2010

Predictions for 2011

Inspired by the impressive success of Matt Crowley's predictions for 2010 (which was actually just a repost of his predictions for 2008), I'm going to go out on a limb and make some predictions of my own for 2011:

  • The price of gold will continue to fluctuate throughout 2011.
  • There will be a terrorist attack against a public location resulting in civilian casualties.
  • Some areas will experience unseasonably warm temperatures in Winter and unseasonably cool temperatures in Summer, while others will be affected by heavy Winter snowstorms and intense Summer heat waves.
  • There will be at least one major food recall and two major vehicle recalls, but only after an unacceptable number of fatalities.
  • Several celebrities will enter rehab, at least one of them not for the first time. Several other celebrities will die.
  • Americans will express discontent with the President and Congress, even those Americans who did not bother to vote in the last election.

How about you?  Polish up your scrying glass, rub the crust out of your inner eye, and see what you can see happening in this coming year!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The end of the Golden Age of Blogging?

I first jumped on the blogging bandwagon back in May of 2004.  A number of things led to this.  I had been reading a handful of excellent, frequently-updated and highly creative blogs since at least late 2001, even longer if you count a friend's online magazine and Penn & Teller's old, long-gone Sin City site as "blogs."

One of the things that pushed me over the edge was a brief clip I heard on NPR's Morning Edition as I was getting ready for work.  Google had recently purchased Blogger/Blogspot, and was pushing for dominance in the world of blogging.  So they were actively encouraging new bloggers to sign up and start their own blogs and see how easy it was to create an online journal using the Blogger tools.  I think I signed up before going to work that day and staked out my preferred name - "Another Monkey," a reference to the old chestnut about an "infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters."

There are folks out there who will tell you that the Golden Age of Blogging was happening just as I was jumping onboard.  Even back in 2004, TIME magazine declared it to be so, and Paul Boutin concurred in Wired magazine four years later.  Some of the best blogs I was reading had been around for several years at that point, since well before the term "blog" was even coined.  And many of the new blogs bursting onto the scene in 2004 and the years that followed had no staying power and quickly faded from the scene - or withered on the vine and stuck around like mummified grapes in mid-winter.

And then there was the rise of the crap blogs, fake sites designed to drive traffic towards other, seedier parts of the internet, sites that would steal content in order to appear legitimate or fill themselves with key words designed to attract search engines.*  In October 2005 technogeek demigod and all-around jerk Chris Pirillo, who had some time before boasted about the effectiveness of using his name to attract the attention of online searches, discovered that many of these fake blogs had taken this advice to heart and had liberally salted his holy name in their sites.  Since he is (or was, I have no idea if he's even still around) the sort who regularly checked the Internet for instances of his name being used, he was somewhat surprised one morning to discover that the Internet had suddenly been flooded with instances of fake blogs using his name.  Which naturally led him to demand that Google "Kill Blogspot already!", declaring it to be "nothing but a crapfarm" with "99% fake blogs."  And his armies of technozombie followers said "Ditto."

Blogger/Blogspot quickly became seen as the bloghetto, a very unexclusive site that allowed simply anybody in.  Lots of other blogging platforms came onto the scene, most of them requiring fees for hosting. (Chris Pirillo generously offered to waive the fee for his blog hosting if I would ditch Blogger and sign up with him.)  Some of these other sites predated Blogger and Blogspot, or at least the explosion of interest generated when Google took over and began actively pushing blogging.

And then MySpace came along, and then Twitter, and then Facebook, and then everyone lost interest in blogging.

No.  That's not what happened.  Though that tends to be the quick-and-dirty explanation given.

The term zeitgeist gets thrown around pretty easily.  The "Spirit of the Times," a collection of actions and behaviors and ways of thinking and fads and trends and memes (in the original sense of the term) shared amongst members of societies and sometimes between wholly disparate societies, something that dwells in a time and informs and is informed by that time, and then moves on, goes away.  There was a zeitgeist to blogging and the virtual world of the blogosphere that existed back in 2004 and 2005 that doesn't exist at the end of 2010.

Back in 2004 and 2005 a critical mass of bloggers was active in the blogosphere.  These bloggers weren't just posting, they were also commenting on each other's blogs and linking to each other's blogs.  How did you decide who to link to?  Sometimes you would visit a blog you liked and take a look at their "blogroll," the list of bloggers to whom they were linked and whose blogs, presumably, they read on a regular basis.  If you had interests in common with the bloggers you were reading, chances were that you might have interests in common with some of the bloggers they were reading.  And so on, and so on, and so on...

The other easy way of discovering new blogs and new bloggers was through comments.  Most blogging platforms allow you to backlink to your own blog (or any other site) when you leave a comment.  Leaving thoughtful, intelligent, coherent comments on other people's blogs was a good way of attracting some of their readers to your blog.  And having people leave such comments on your blog was a good way of having new bloggers present themselves to you.

There were other ways of finding blogs.  Blogger has a feature called "Next Blog."  Once upon a time this provided a random walk through the blogosphere, at least Blogger's chunk of it.  And what a walk it was.  You would see blogs of all sorts, some legitimate, some...umm, legitimate but fundamentally uninteresting, some fake, some crap, some just bizarre.  There were, for example, numbers blogs, blogs populated with nothing but four-digit numbers that were posted every few minutes.  (I think these may have been related to numbers stations, but I don't know for sure.)  I also discovered some of the most interesting bloggers I have ever read trough the "Next Blog" button.  Unfortunately, Blogger has changed the functionality of this button to link only to blogs that it feels are similar to the blog that you're starting from.  For my own blog, this has resulted in some disturbing and confusing results.  I'm not sure I ever want to be tried before a jury of my peers if the "Next Blog" button is determining who those peers are.

Blogrolls, and comments, and randomly discovered blogs.  These weren't just nice features of blogging.  They were also fundamental to how blogging functioned.

Things started to fall apart in my corner of the blogosphere a few years ago.  Even before I had heard of Facebook, and even when it was obvious that MySpace was moribund and pathetic.  Bloggers started to drop out and back off.  Some might blame the recession, some might blame the zeitgeist that arose from political and social changes.  But...these were bloggers from all over the world.  The North Atlantic and the South Pacific.  Philadelphia and North Carolina.  Scranton and Wilkes-Barre.  Everywhere.

It's not like these people are abandoning blogs in favor of tweeting on Twitter or posting updates on Facebook or anything like that.  Each person has his or her own story and own reasons for having stopped blogging.  In many cases it's like they have simply grown up and moved beyond the world of blogging (and Twitter and Facebook, too.)  But these are people, as I have noted, from all over the world, of all ages and walks of life.  All deciding the same thing at more or less the same time.  I wonder if it was ever anything more than a fad to them.  And yet, some of these people had been blogging for years before me. 

I once came across a screed in a very unlikely place lambasting web site authors who chose to close and remove their web sites rather than just leave them up and inactive with all of their old links intact.  The Internet, this person complained, was a delicate web of interconnections based on links given on millions of different sites.  Break some of those links and the integrity of the entire web was threatened.

So it was with blogs.  As bloggers dropped out of the game and took their blogs with them, their blogrolls vanished.  Links that were taken for granted one day were gone forever the next - along with entire archives of online writing, and all the associated site links contained in all those deleted posts.  The web of interconnectedness that made up the blogosphere began to unravel.

Some old sites became cybersquatted.  I just discovered that one of my favorite old blogs, one of many blogs created and discarded by a sort of serial blogger, had been cybersquatted and taken over by a kilt fetish site.  Makes me wish I had thought of that first.

Comments have become few and far between on many blogs.  I can't say what is behind this trend in general.  I do know that in my specific case I am reposting my blog posts to Facebook, and there they are garnering many comments.  But Facebook has an inherently linear structure:  what is posted today gets covered over by what is posted tomorrow, and the next day, and the next - with no easy way of accessing what has come before.  My posts remain in the neatly indexed structure of my blog, but the comments on Facebook quickly vanish in the mist.

With the fundamental interconnectedness of the blogosphere compromised, things fall apart.  The center cannot hold.  Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.  The blogosphere has not collapsed, not yet.  But it is not what it used to be.  The Golden Age of Blogging is over, and has been over for some time.

But blogging isn't over.  There are still some great blogs out there, blogs being updated regularly, blogs that show a depth of insight that is the hallmark of great blogs.  And there are still crap blogs out there.  Five years ago I came across a blog written by a seventeen year old girl who wrote with a maturity and depth of experience that suggested she was many years older.  Three months ago I encountered a blog written by another seventeen (or maybe eighteen, depending on which post you believe) year old who occasionally shows flashes of insight but more often has an output that resembles arts and crafts being produced by institutionalized emotionally disturbed children.

I miss my old blogfriends, very very much.  I miss the first blogs I started reading.  Most of those older blogs are gone now, or have been reduced to sporadic posts interspersed with long stretches of downtime.  I have filled in the gaps with other blogs, some by friends I met though the comments on Adam Felber's now-silent site, some by folks I met through The Comics Curmudgeon or even the Life In Hell fansite

A while back ...tom... introduced me to the blogger who calls herself Dr. Isis.  Her original blog has gone into stasis, but she is one of the most prolific posters in the blogospere via her current blogPhil Plait and recent addition Paul Krugman still grind out posts on a daily or near-daily basis, though their blogs tend to focus on specific topics (Astronomy and skepticism for Phil, Economics and politics for Paul) and not the more general "life blogs" that I first came to love.

Last week, as I was working on an early mental revision of this post, a friend on Facebook introduced me to the blog Hyperbole and a Half by way of this post.  Even though this is a blog that - of late, anyway - only does a handful of longform posts each month, it still gave me some hope for the future.  That maybe there are more people out there who enjoy blogging, and are willing to share their lives and stories with the rest of us.

And, of course, I go on.  I will take the occasional break, sometimes by choice, sometimes because life is making other demands on my time.  But I don't see myself dropping out of blogging anytime soon.

For further reading:
*This is now known as "search engine optimization" and is considered a legitimate practice by the sort of people who have no qualms about robbing little old ladies dry. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Waiting by the phone (and the mailbox)

Right now I'm waiting for a return call from the state regarding my unemployment claim.  Since my old claim has closed, I can't simply reactivate it over their computer system.  But the 800 number I was advised to call put me through several stages of voice mail before it informed me that, due to current call volumes, they would have to call me back.  Sometime between now and 9:45 PM tomorrow.

Like an idiot, I didn't give my cell phone number for a call-back.  I still think of my cell phone as an emergency communicator and car phone, not an everyday walking-around communication tool.  So now I'm stuck here until 9:45 tonight, and then from 7:00 tomorrow morning until 9:45 tomorrow night - unless they call before then.

I got my insurance situation resolved several weeks ago, I think.  But in the meantime I threw the switch on an official complaint to the state insurance department.  This was something I did immediately upon receipt of my cancellation notice, because, really, I had no other choice.  I received the notice on the weekend after Thanksgiving stating that as of December 27 - the Monday after Christmas, which, as you may recall, fell on a Saturday, so Christmas Eve fell on a Friday, so a lot of state agencies apparently wrapped things up early on Thursday the 23rd - I would no longer have insurance.  But I had some brief period - ten days, I think - in which I could appeal this to the state.  Ten days from what, I'm not sure.  The internal date on the message was, I think, Monday November 22, and the postmark was the next day, Tuesday November 23.  But Thursday November 25 was Thanksgiving - a federal holiday without mail service.  It was almost as if the mailing was sent with a built-in delay to chew up available response time.  So I filed my appeal immediately.

To be fair, the relevant department got back to me fairly quickly to let me know they had received my complaint and were launching an investigation.  By this time the situation was nearly moot, as I had already made contact with the new insurance company and had taken steps to get new insurance.  I prepared a response but held back on sending it.  In the end I intended to send a brief note along the lines of "Thank you for your prompt response, but no further action is necessary."

And then, as we had been advised earlier, I lost my job, along with several hundred of my co-workers.

That threw things off a bit.  And then it was nearly Christmas, and I had a list of things I wanted to do.  That list may or may not have included dashing off this message.  But it never happened, and got added to the list of things I had to do after Christmas.

Today, December 29th, I got a follow-up from the state insurance department.  It was not the response that I wanted to hear.  Even though I think the issue is moot at this point, I still take exception to certain statements made by my former insurance company and apparently concurred with by the state insurance department.  As before, I was given a period of time in which I could follow-up with them regarding this situation.

Let's back up a bit.  I fired off an appeal immediately as soon as I got my cancellation notice.  The state responded promptly.  And their notice regarding the conclusion of their investigation came to me two days after the official termination of my old insurance policy.

As I said, I was given a period of time in which I could respond to this mailing.  Ten days from the day on which it was composed - which, according to the date on the message, was Tuesday, December 21.  Yet the postmark on this piece of mail - sent from the state capitol of Harrisburg, the same city where it was composed - was December 23.  Somehow it took two days for this message to make its way from the printer to the postmarking machine at the local post office.  There's another date printed along the top of the envelope stamped on it somewhere along the way - 12/27.  And then it found its way to my mailbox this morning, 12/29.

Now, granted, there were some holidays thrown in there.  Christmas Eve - well, that's not a federal holiday, but you know how things go, and apparently some state offices closed that day anyway.  Christmas Day.  Boxing Day, which was also a Sunday.  Oh, and then there was that little snowstorm that hit several major coastal cities on Sunday and will probably continue to disrupt air travel through this coming weekend.  If this message travelled by air at any point, that was also a factor.

I composed a response immediately, noting that while the point was probably moot at this stage, I wanted to state for the record that I was disputing the conclusions drawn by the insurance company and by the state insurance department.  Today is 12/29.  My response will be mailed out tomorrow, 12/30.  The next day is the tenth day after their latest missive was composed, 12/31.  New Year's Eve.  A Friday.

How long until my response actually gets where it is going?

It seems to me that if someone was trying to arrange events to maximize mailing delays, you would send something time-sensitive right before Thanksgiving and start a clock running that is dependent on messages being exchanged over Christmas and, possibly, New Year's.  Oopsie, it didn't occur to us that there might be issues with sending things through the mail at that time, or that the holidays would actually drastically shorten the actual number of days that mail would be delivered.  And snow in Winter?  Totally an Act of God, not our doing, not our fault.  How could we foresee such a thing?

Ahhh, that's just paranoia.  I'm sure no company would try to screw a consumer like that.  Especially not an insurance company trying to ditch someone who had filed a claim.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

So what do you want to do?

Finding myself unemployed for the second time in four years isn't exactly fun.  I did a lot of the grunt work of job searching back in the Spring and Summer of 2007 and I know the drill, and the issues.  A very good and generous friend who I met by way of The Comics Curmudgeon blog walked me through the steps of doing a somewhat more advanced job search.  One of the resources he had me tap was a book that listed all of the businesses in the state of Pennsylvania...alphabetically by location.  This is somewhat less useful than you might think.  Locations tend not to cluster alphabetically.  Likely locations for potential employers in this area, for example, are located in Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, and in dozens of smaller townships and municipalities in-between.  Olyphant borders Disckson City, and both are on the outskirts of Scranton, which is also near Clarks Summit and Avoca and Moosic, which are near Pittston, which is near Wyoming and Exeter and Plymouth and...and in a book of employers listed alphabetically by location, Nanticoke comes just before Nanty Glo,  and Wilkes-Barre is near Williamsport, and Pittston comes after Pittsburgh.  If there were some profit in it, I would sit down and recreate this guide grouping employers by county.  Maybe the local Chambers of Commerce have already done something like this.  Maybe.

(Apparently, this list was compiled back in 2006.  Which doesn't make it super super useful in 2011.)

During the bee-grinding process of flipping back and forth through this massive (and frequently wildly inaccurate) volume of Pennsylvania employers, I was able to determine that the majority of local industries fell into three categories:

1.  Plastics and associated manufacturing.
2.  Processed and frozen food production.
3.  Military materiel and related support.

This doesn't cover everything done in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but it did cover about 75% of what was in that book, which was probably current as of sometime in 2006.  With the exception of major errors, such as the way a random employee (and someone with whom I worked as a DVD molding operator these past three years) was listed as the primary contact for my then-former-and-future employer, or the way another division of the same company was listed as a whole other company.

None of which really thrills me.

New employers have come to the area since that time.  One major new industry has arisen in the last ten years:  warehousing.  Kind of an obvious fit in an area with cheap real estate (= cheap storage space), an inexpensive workforce, and easy access to major highways.   Call centers have also popped up, some flash-in-the-pan deals, some with more staying power.

I'm interested in an industry that doesn't exist - despite my best efforts to summon it into being.

I think the term you would use at this stage is "green energy infrastructure."  Not green energy per se, but rather the things that make green energy work.  Generating electricity from wind requires turbines, and those turbines have to be built somewhere.  Generating electricity from solar energy requires solar cells and solar panels, and those things need to be built somewhere.  Electric and hybrid cars are built around rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, and those batteries need to be built - you guessed it - somewhere.

The closest somewhere for wind turbines is apparently York, PA.  The somewheres for solar cells and solar panels include Delaware (a linear descendant of my old employer from twenty years ago, I think) and China.  The somewhere for lithium-ion batteries is out in the Midwest.  Nobody, as far as I can tell, made any real effort to bring any of this stuff here to Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Instead what we have is a boom in natural gas extraction.  Fracking of Marcellus Shale.  A process which will render groundwater poisoned, land scarred and unusable, and a lot of boom towns gone bust when the drillers have moved on.

And, ironically, the "coal country" parts of Northeastern PA, the parts which still bear the scars and the damage from 19th and 20th century coal mining, will not be a part of this.  The geological processes which cooked dead vegetation into coal apparently also cooked out a significant amount of the trapped natural gas.  So while we are spared the direct environmental damage of this new industry, we will also be denied any economic benefits associated with it, however short-term they may be.

Leaving me with...what?

Time to start the search all over again.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Fighting Winter funk with half-price calendars

Yes, I know I've only been laid off for something like ten days.  Yes, I know it's the week between Christmas and New Year's, and I'm probably not going to get much accomplished anyway.  But still...

I used to get by on four to five hours of sleep each day.  Wake up, eat, get ready for work, go to work, come home, go to sleep.  Repeat.  Now I'm getting something like nine or ten hours of sleep, and that's only because I'm forcing myself out of bed.

There's a lot of stuff I should be doing that I haven't done.  Basic stuff.  But it seems like the day slips by so quickly, and then the days slip by so quickly.  Last week, at least I had the excuse of baking Christmas cookies.  This week, not so much.

Yesterday was Calendar Day, the day that calendar prices in bricks-and-mortar retailers traditionally drop to 50% off.  Frankly, I'm surprised any calendars get sold before then.  Late yesterday afternoon I decided to head out to the local megachain bookstore to see what they had to offer.  Unfortunately, this was about the time that the super monster blizzard hit.  It dumped nearly an inch of snow on us - well, maybe more, but the 50-mile-per-hour winds tended to scour it away.  About halfway up I found myself wondering what the hell I was doing, and what I was going to buy.  I have my Life In Hell calendar, and my Guy Ottewell Astronomical Calendar, and a nifty free calendar from my church.  I did need a traditional Astronomy or Space calendar, but I remembered partway up that Barnes & Noble tends to have a lousy selection of these - and they didn't disappoint.  As I wandered through the calendar stacks over and over I again found myself wondering what the hell I thought I was doing.

Then I saw them:  planners.  Week-at-a-glance, month-at-a-glance, page-a-day, two-pages-a-day.  Mostly in fake leather covers with butterflies or embossed paisley patterns, but still - nothing says "I'm ready to head back into the world of employment, but can't afford a nifty smart phone to enter all my interview times and other crucial appointments, and besides, I consider those to be frivolous and you probably don't allow them in your facility anyway"  like a planner.  I knew I had a couple of Day-Timers or at least Day-Timerish things scattered around the house, and I also have a very nice portable office thingie that consists of a leatherette zipping pouch about the length of a legal pad with a captive letter pad and all sorts of compartments for business cards and documents and stuff.  It also has enough interior space to hold  few other things, including a week-at-a-glance spiral-bound calendar, particularly after I ripped out all the pages from July through the last week of December 2010 (it was an 18-month book - very much like this, but with a plain black cover and red spirals).

So that's what I grabbed, along with a Scientific American Astronomy calendar that is the sequel to one I currently have hanging up.  Maybe sometime later I'll go out looking elsewhere for a Terence Dickinson Astronomy calendar, or some 2011 pages for the unused burgundy Day Runner I purchased in early 2001 when it looked like I might be changing employers.  Maybe sometime later I'll get around to doing the things I need to be doing.

But for now I have taken a first step.  I have bought a little weekly planner.  Now I just need some stuff to write in it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

That's a wrap

All the cookies are baked that are going to be baked.  All the presents are bought that are going to get bought.  All the wrapping...damn, I still have some wrapping to do.

Well, whatever.  I just have to clean up my last mess from cookie-making, and then I'm going to bed.

I may be offline for a few days, or online only sporadically.  Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, have a kickin' Kwanzaa (pretty much the only reason to read the comic strip Curtis), and always remember, "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hyperbole and a Half

I've got some posts that I'm working on, mentally at least.  One that I probably could have written anytime in the last year - maybe longer - is on the passing of the Golden Age of Blogging.  So many of the great blogs that I first started reading back in 2001 and 2002 and linked to when I first started blogging in 2004 are gone.  These were "life" blogs, blogs that gave us a glimpse of the thoughts and feelings and everyday lives of people from all over the world, and did it in a way that was interesting and creative and funny.  There may be more blogs like that out there, maybe lots more, but other changes have come to the blogosphere that have made it more difficult to find them.  More on that in another post.

I'm not going to blame Facebook for this.  As I will explain in that other post, the evidence actually argues against blaming Facebook.  And how could I be angry at Facebook when it allowed me to discover Hyperbole and a Half?

One of my friends posted a link to this post a few hours ago.  I don't know who.  In the perpetual NOW of Facebook, such links are washed away very quickly beneath a flood of other links and updates.  I suppose I could visit the pages of every one of my Facebook friends (currently at 345) and see who posted a link the the post in question today.  I could probably narrow it down to likely suspects and go from there.  Or somebody could read this, and let me know that they were the person who posted it.  Or something.

In the meantime, get yourself a nice, warm drink, click on over to Hyperbole and a Half, and settle down for a good long read.

Update:  It was Facebook/Sideshow friend Casey Severn, likely suspect #5.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Impressions of an eclipse

1:30 AM:  The Moon seems so tiny almost directly overhead, appearing to race to the North through the clouds that cover the sky, clouds that are actually racing to the South.  The South-facing edge of the Moon appears to be flattened slightly, as though someone had dropped the great orb and then put it back in the sky, hoping no one would notice.

1:40 AM: Now like a giant white cookie with a bite taken out of the edge! The shadow looks so dark - but what will it look like at totality?

‎1:55 AM: Like a First Quarter moon with a curved terminator, but pointing in a direction no First Quarter Moon ever would.  The clouds have thickened and the Moon only appears sporadically. Oddly, the breaks in the clouds seem to favor Jupiter, off to the South. I guess Jupiter has far more opportunities to pop through breaks in the clouds than the Moon.

‎2:14 AM: Almost completely lost in the clouds, just a patch of white among the gray. Occasionally a slim crescent pops out. Totality in 25 minutes - if there are still clouds, will a red glow be visible?

Totality! A pale rust color, like rust stains on dull gray metal.

The eclipsed Moon keeps playing a frustrating game of hide-and-seek with the clouds.  Even when the sky looks clear, binoculars will reveal clouds streaming across the Moon's face.  Still, I made it, and got to see totality!  I think it's time for bed.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Hot Notes, cookies, and an eclipse

Today I took a stab at getting the ball rolling (to mix metaphors) on re-establishing myself with CareerLink and Unemployment.  I need to re-open a claim with Unemployment, as my last one closed at Thanksgiving.  I don't think I can count last week as my "waiting week", since I worked 24 hours (Sunday and Friday nights) and took 24 hours of sick time (Wednesday and Thursday.)

I discovered while trying to update my resumé on the CareerLink website that the site has changed substantially since I first used it back in the Spring of 2007.  Most importantly, their password structure has changed, and my old passwords were no longer valid.  I had to wade through layer after layer of bureaucracy to get this cleared up.  OK, that's a lie, sort of; I used the website to look up the contact information for the Scranton office, made a call, briefly explained my situation to the person who answered the phone, and was transferred to someone who was able to help me right away.  Bureaucracy and I actually play well together.

I haven't done much with the Hot Notes website recently, the blog that I set up to communicate information to displaced workers from CINRAM at the behest of the Transition Team.  Mainly this was because I didn't have time, and I didn't have time because, since the elimination of the first wave of workers back in August, those of us who were left behind have been working overtime like mad.  But all that's in the past now, and it's time to get down to the business of doing all this Unemployment and CareerLink and job search stuff.  And as has been my plan all along, any bumps in the road that I encounter will get documented on the Hot Notes blog.  Like this:

I have wrapped one present so far.  Don't want to strain myself.

Tonight I will make some more cookies while I wait for the lunar eclipse.  Tonight's cookies will be Rocks, this year featuring Zante currants (from Sun-Maid) and Ginger flavored brandy.

And then, of course, if the sky is clear and I am able to stay awake, I will ring in the Solstice by observing tonight's total lunar eclipse.  See this post for complete details.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A gathering

I'm shifting gears.  Yesterday one phase of my life ended, and now another begins.  This isn't my first involuntary separation from this company, but I think it might be my last.

Yesterday I slept, took a shower, went to church, and then screwed around on the computer for a longish time before settling down to make cookies.  I decided to keep things simple and limit myself to a single type of cookie: my signature chocolate chip oatmeal cookies.  This is the basic Nestlé Toll House recipe with the addition of about two cups of "Quick" or "Minute" oatmeal and enough milk to make a workable batter.  I also added more chocolate chips to offset the dilution of the batter by the oatmeal.

Today I woke up, took a shower, ran out to Sanitary Bakery to get three assortments of pastries for the three friends I was meeting (I must make a note that one friend loves Lafayettes* and hasn't had one in years), and then filled out each box with two dozen of the cookies I made last night.  After a half-hour delay to search for one of my mom's cats who had run into the basement with his head through the handle of a plastic bag (he got it off by himself), I was on my way to meet my friends.

Our get-together left me - well, uneasy.  We all used to work together, but now are scattered; one person works for the competitor that I was blocked from joining nearly a decade ago, while another lost her job at the same time as me nearly four years ago and now works in a completely different industry.  Another still works in our old department.  We were joined by several other friends, including one who had left for the new company just before the legal agreement that put a moratorium on that company hiring employees from my now-former employer and wound up sliding into the position that was to have been mine; he has advanced up the corporate ladder in the intervening years and is doing quite well.  Another friend who met with us just lost his job in this latest cut and is looking to develop some basic (and long-overdue) computer skills.

I learned that there is vast income disparity even on a local level.  I estimate that over the years since I was initially blocked from taking a position at this competing company and the subsequent "informal" blockage that has continued since the expiration of that initial legal agreement, I have probably lost something on the order of $100,000 of potential income, as well as many hours of my life spent working overtime in a menial and exhausting position.  Factor in the utter destruction of anything that I had that might have resembled a career, a path which might have continued and blossomed and grown in the years that I have been blocked, and I'm left...well, unhappy.  I'm currently unemployed and trying to figure out how the hell to pay my bills, and other people are working on building their second homes, or even building vacation mansions that get used only once or twice a year. 

It's hard not to be bitter.  Bitterness and resentment will only get me so far, but right now I'm looking at using all of my personal skills, abilities, and resources to try to land what will probably be an entry-level position in some industry unrelated to anything I have done in the past for a fraction of the income I was making even a week ago.

So.  Tomorrow is Monday.  I should get started on my to-do list with Unemployment and CareerLink.  And continue baking cookies.  And set up my mom's digital cable boxes.  And do something about that six-inch hole in my chimney where there used to be a stovepipe.  And get busy with some Christmas cards.  And try not to focus too much on lost opportunities and lost income.

*Ummm, is this a local thing?  A Lafayette is a small, gumdrop-shaped cake, something like an upside-down cupcake, covered in raspberry sauce and sprinkled with coconut, topped with cream and a dollop of raspberry jelly.  Only I can't find any references to such things online.  Except for one, which is on the site of a cake shop owned by the wife of one of my former co-workers.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Last night

My final night of work made me kind of glad it was my final night of work.

My commute started off undramatically.  I left the house early, and made good time to just past the point where Montage Mountain traffic merges onto Interstate 81.  For the past few years this has been a bottleneck, particularly during Christmas shopping season and during the frequent periods of construction.  But for the past month or so traffic has been remarkably free-flowing through there - until yesterday.  Traffic slowed to a crawl just past this merger.  I checked my dashboard clock:  5:35.  I had twenty-five minutes to go about ten miles.  Traffic continued to crawl along the Cemetery Bridge construction zone and almost all the way to the exit for the Central Scranton Expressway, at which point the congestion mysteriously vanished and cars were free to move at highway speeds again.  By then it was about 5:45.  I had traveled about one mile in ten minutes.

I made it to work on time, but later than I would have liked.  We were operating with a skeleton crew.  Many of our systems were down, including the ones I have been regularly working on.  I was assigned to four very fast systems that I have worked with before.  These systems usually run trouble-free, unlike my usual systems, but require constant attention to unload the discs that are being made.  Unfortunately, last night three out of four of them had small orders, meaning frequent stamper changes.  Even with plenty of help from other people (including the tech and assistant group leader from my dream the other night) for which I am extremely grateful, I still ran my ass off.

By the end of the night I was exhausted, emotionally as well as physically.  But I never slacked off.  That's not my thing.  I never really received closure for the night:  it was already after 6:00 when I realized my relief had not showed up, so there was no one to give a turnover to.  But at that point I was no longer an employee of the organization, and it was time to go.

People have been making their goodbyes for a while, knowing that with the rolling layoffs any day could be the last day we were seeing each other.  There were plenty of goodbyes all around last night.  I punched out at 6:05, by which point most of the people who had been there were gone.  I used my badge to swipe through the turnstiles out of the building, then handed it to one of the guards who wanded me to make sure I hadn't stuffed my pockets with DVDs on the way out.  Then I was done.

I headed to my house, brushed my teeth, washed my face, changed my clothes, and collapsed into bed.  I awoke about six hours later to the sound of a soul being tortured in the deepest pit of Hell, which turned out to be an opera being broadcast on the NPR affiliate that I use as my wake-up music.  I got out of bed and eased into my slippers to make the trek down the hall to the bathroom, and suddenly realized that last night's adventures had crippled me to the point that I couldn't walk.  This is not an unusual situation, but is always worse when I have had a particularly strenuous night.  It can sometimes take five to ten minutes for me to get onto my feet.  Unfortunately I had an urgent issue that needed attending to at the far end of the hall.  I contemplated crawling there, but was able to force myself to my feet and lurch along the hallway wall, hoping that I wouldn't crash through the century-old plaster.

The good news is, I made it.  The bad news is, my feet still hurt.  As I write this I have my feet in one of those heated foot massagers I got for Christmas a few years ago.  The pain will go away in a day or so, maybe even overnight.  But until then it will be a reminder of what fun I had on my last night of work.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Last day

Well, this is it.  My last day at my workplace.  At least this time, they gave us advance notice.

I had a dream.  Last night, maybe, or the night before.  It was the last day at work, and I went there, and there was just a skeleton crew.  Only it wasn't work, exactly; I was in a hallway at someplace that looked like my old college, complete with pleather-and-stainless-steel furniture along the walls.  Two people were hanging out on one of the couches, talking:  a tech and an operator, both of whom are in reality among the few people who are staying.  (One was sitting on the couch and one was either standing next to it or sitting on one of the arms.)  There was a third person standing there, an assistant shift supervisor or group leader or whatever the hell they call her job - she's on the list of people being cut.  And she was wearing a quilted dress over her normal clothing, a home-made costume that was apparently for a Renaissance Faire.  It wasn't especially fancy, but was made of a bronze-colored fabric.  And on the chair next to her was a white wig that would be more appropriate for a Marie Antoinette costume.  We talked and laughed about the upcoming layoff, and all the rumors swirling around it.  I don't remember much more after that.

I'm not a big one for symbolism in dreams.  I've had plenty of dreams about school, about realizing that I signed up for a class and forgot all about it for most of the semester until finals time, or that I have a final somewhere and can't find the room, and I know that these dreams are supposed to indicate guilt over a lack of personal organization or something like that.  But this wasn't one of those.  The plainly-made Renaissance Faire costume could indicate several things, as could the set-aside wig that could have belonged to a woman famous in part for having her head chopped off.  The cast of characters in this dream could have meant something, too; I have no idea.

Whatever.  It's time to get ready, to pack my lunch and make that long, miserable commute one last time.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Stakes and Stakeholders

Fifteen years ago I was riding high on the "new wave" of management theory.  I wasn't a manager at the time (and even at the time I was a "manager," from 1999 through 2007, I was primarily a manger of things, and only rarely of people) but a Statistical Process Control Coordinator.

Statistical Process Control was part of that "new wave," and part of the reason why I put those words in quotes:  it was something that was first developed by Walter Shewhart in the early decades of the 20th century and later put into fabulously successful practice by W. Edwards Deming in post-war Japan at the behest of the U.S. government.  A statistical, data-based approach to quality and understanding process behavior was only part - but a major part - of the new management theories that were sweeping industry in the mid-1990's.

One of the other concepts was that of stakeholders.  Every process has stakeholders at multiple levels of the company.  From investors and CEOs to line workers and janitors, in some way everyone was tied in not just to overall company success, but to the success of smaller portions that go to make up the whole.

Take, for example, the relationship between manufacturers and customers.  Manufacturers want to hold onto their customers; they're the ones who buy the manufactured products and make it possible to keep manufacturing products.  The loss of a major customer means hits at every level of the process.  If other customers cannot offset the loss of the customer - particularly if the lost customer accounted for the majority of orders for manufactured goods - then the surplus workforce must be cut.  Not just on the manufacturing level, but customer service, middle management, janitorial - even cafeteria service may be eliminated if there aren't enough employees forking over money for meals.

And the pain goes up the chain, too:  reduction in revenues will lead to a reduction in profits, which will lead to some unhappy stockholders.  Stockholders who may ask difficult questions at the next meeting.

The pain radiates out, too:  all these people losing their jobs participated in the local and national economy.  They bought coffee on the way in to work and ordered out for lunch.  They bought gas to fuel their commutes.  They used their paychecks to buy goods and services, and to feed and clothe themselves, pay their mortgages and their bills, maybe send their kids to college so they might have a better life.  All gone now, replaced by programs provided by a social safety net that some politicians are very eager to eliminate.

Somewhere high up on the corporate ladder there is someone whose job - whose major job, whose only job, perhaps - is to make sure this sort of thing doesn't happen.  You don't put all or even most of your eggs in one basket and then lose that basket.  Is that person a stakeholder?  Will they feel any repercussions from this failure?  Will they lose their house, or at least one of their houses?  Will they have to pull their children out of their exclusive private schools and place them in somewhat-less-exclusive private schools?  Will they have to cut back on the caviar and foie gras?  Will they lose their job?

Probably not.  Some stakeholders are more deeply invested than others.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pseudo-weekend wrapup

If it weren't for the fact that my job is grinding to a halt in a few days, my biggest gripe right now would be that we just flipped to the "Krazy Kalendar" portion of the year.  Our last stretch of four days of work turned into a stretch of five days of work - Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then Sunday as well.  We saw no particular overtime advantage from this fifth consecutive workday because it fell in a different calendar week.  Then what would have been four days off became three days off:  Monday (a recovery day, spent mostly sleeping, as our work week had just ended at 6:00 that morning), Tuesday, and Wednesday.  Tomorrow, Thursday, is our first night back.  But it's a flex day, meaning it could go from either 10 PM to 2 AM or from 12 AM to 6 AM.  We won't officially know until tomorrow morning.  Then Friday is scheduled to be a regular work day.  Only it is also scheduled to be the final work day for most of my shift.

I still have two use-them-or-lose-them sick days I'm entitled to, and I haven't felt 100% in about a month.  We'll see what happens tomorrow.

Yesterday was marathon session with my mom - we started out at about 12:30 and didn't get back until nearly 8:00.  Today was slightly shorter - we left the house at 1:00 and got back around 7:00.

Out of the list of things that I posted the other day, I've gotten two accomplished:  I bought stamps yesterday and got a haircut today.  No baking, which is a significant problem.  I may have to pull a marathon session on Saturday.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Upcoming event: Winter Solstice Lunar Eclipse!

In the wee hours of the morning of Tuesday, December 21, viewers in North and Central America and the eastern half of the Pacific will be treated to a total lunar eclipse.  Parts of this eclipse will be visible everywhere else except India, central Eurasia, eastern and southern Africa, the Indian Ocean, and all of Antarctica.

In the past my first thought would have been to see what Jack Horkheimer had to say about this.  Unfortunately, Jack has been dead for several months, and as far as I  know his pre-recorded programs didn't extend out this far.  So I was a little surprised when I went to his old site and found a link to a video for a program about this event.'s not Jack.

OK, obviously I haven't been keeping up with this, but apparently the show has gone on with rotating guest hosts.  I like and appreciate that.  And this host, Dean Regas, is...fine.  Informative, articulate.  But he lacks the madcap enthusiasm and excitement that Jack Horkheimer was able to project.  Then again, so did Jack, at first; the "Star Hustler" persona was something he developed over time.

Anyway, for those who didn't bother to sit through that whole piece, here's the short form:

Quick summary:  the Moon will be totally eclipsed from 2:40 AM - 3:53 AM Eastern Time the morning of December 21.  It will actually be moving into and out of eclipse from about 1:30 AM to about 5:00 AM.  Those earliest and latest stages are really just for completists.  Of more interest is the period from just before totality to just after totality.  You would think that there really isn't much difference between a Moon almost completely in the Earth's shadow and one that is, but in reality the difference is remarkable.

This eclipse is falling on the date of the Winter Solstice.  The last time we had such a coincidence of events was back in 1997, when an eclipse fell very close to Easter during the passage of Comet Hale-Bopp - and the Heaven's Gate cult decided it was time to commit suicide.  (Unless you count the lunar eclipse under which the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series.)  What craziness will ensue this time?

This is the last total lunar eclipse visible in North America until April 15, 2014.  Tax Day.  I wonder what that coincidence of events will bring about?

See also:
NASA - Eclipses During 2010
Total Eclipse of the Moon on Dec. 21, 2010
Total Lunar Eclipse on December 21, 2010
Total lunar eclipse, December 21, 2010 - Astronomy Magazine - Observing Highlights - A Sky-High Lunar Eclipse

Monday, December 13, 2010

Things to do in the post-employment era

My job is winding down.  Friday is supposed to be my last day, but rumor is we might be done Thursday.  Then again, last night was my last night of work until Thursday, so maybe last night was my last night of work.  I don't know.  Which is not at all surprising.

A week ago today we had a meeting with the top manager at our facility, and he expressed - not for the first time - surprise at how well everyone affected by this latest round of cuts was handling the situation.  How we were soldiering on, keeping up productivity and quality, doing everything to the same standards we had always maintained.  And I thought, What's the alternative?  Are we supposed to be slouching and moping, weeping in corners, tossing our wooden shoes into the machinery?

The thing is, at the time he was speaking to us I realized that my impending permanent layoff was not my top stressor.  At best, it was in the number three spot.

Number one was this nonsense with my insurance.  I don't want to get into all the details right now, but in summary, right after Thanksgiving I received a notice that my insurance company was cancelling my homeowner's insurance effective December 27.  I had until then to secure new insurance or - well, I'm not even sure what.  I think if I could not secure new insurance by then my mortgage company might yank my mortgage.  So while facing the impending loss of my job I was now also facing the impending loss of my homeowner's insurance and the potential loss of my house.  Unless I could make other arrangements in the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Hey, it's not like I had any other plans for that stretch of days.  Thanks to some tips from relatives I was able to locate a new agent who was able to set me up  with a new insurance policy - same coverage as the old one, with a nominal increase in cost, which I was expecting in the aftermath of the robbery anyway, even when you factor in the security system I had installed since then.

Number two, ironically, was overtime.  Believe it or not, we were scheduling overtime right up until this past stretch of days off.  I don't want to complain about the opportunity to earn extra money, bringing me back up to something closer to what I was making before my February 2007 layoff.  And I was volunteering for overtime every chance I got.  But, dammit, it took a toll.  Personally, physically, and every other way possible.  I honestly believe that the length and severity of this cold (which I still haven't completely shaken) were exacerbated by the stress of working so much overtime.  Add to that the uncertainty of it all:  when you put in for it, you don't know if you'll get it, and when you get it, you don't know if it will be cancelled or not.  And on top of that, even if you don't want overtime, there's still the possibility you will be mandated to work on one of your days off.  Unless you are cancelled.  Which you don't know for sure until ten hours before the start of the shift.

And then there's the loss of my job.

There's a lot I should be doing about that.  There's a lot I could have been doing about that.  But, hey, how much progress do you think will be made in a job search in the week before Christmas?  And for all the things I could have been doing, please see the preceding paragraph regarding overtime.  I've been routinely working sixty and seventy hour weeks, spending a significant amount of my time "off" feeling like a half-drowned sailor who has just washed up on a beach.  Add to that all the other stuff that needs to get done that hasn't been getting done - hell, I need a damned haircut before I can start a job search, and have needed one for weeks - and then factor in the insurance crap I've been going through, and you'll see that my life has become a tangled, knotted mess.  Having my job end will actually free up huge chunks of time to get things done.

Here's a list I made of things that I need to get done, rightly in the order that I want or need to get them done.

- Set up my mom's TVs.  The local cable monopoly has decided to putz with their systems once again, and this time everybody needs to upgrade to digital equipment.  I ordered and received the necessary boxes some time ago, but haven't had time to set them up.  (See above.)  As of December 7, channels started disappearing from my mom's televisions.  So I need to get these things installed.  The thing is, they're apparently pretty complicated to install, and you are supposed to install all of them at once.  Oh, and my mom's TVs aren't exactly set up with easy access to the back in mind.  So it will be a bit of marathon television surgery.

- Christmas cards.  I've started getting some, and I haven't sent any out in the past year or two.  I want to take care of that soon.

- Buy stamps.  For the cards and other stuff.

- Contact CareerLink for Initial Assessment.  I think I need to wait until the actual end of my employment to do this.  Maybe not.  But tomorrow I'm taking my mom shopping, and Wednesday I'm taking her to an appointment, and then it's (allegedly) back to work on Thursday.  So I guess I need to wait until the actual end of my employment to do this.  And then it's Christmas week.  And then the week between Christmas and New Year's.

- Bake cookies.  Once again I can't really afford presents, but I can put my mad baking skilz to work again this year.  Bake bake bake.

- Contact electrician about some necessary work.  Yeah, I won't go into too much detail with this, but it's something I've needed to get done for a few years now.  Had a mysterious encounter with the electrician today, too.  That was odd.

- Set up a tree on the library/storage side of the house.  Hmmmm, I could have done that today, if I weren't sleeping the whole while.  See the "half-drowned sailor" thing above.

- Prune grapevines.  This is something you're supposed to do in the winter when the vine is good and dormant.  I actually had this scheduled for the Monday after Thanksgiving, but I spent that day (as I have so many since) dealing with the insurance crisis.

- Get lamps from Target.  They have the cheapest floor lamps I have found, perfectly suited for my intended purpose.  Oh, I should get timers too.  And random on/off things.  And some inexpensive radios also.  All related to that electrician thing above.

- Weed around grapes and Forsythia.  The last time I did yard work was the day I discovered the robbery.  I have some work that needs doing.

- Mulch grapes, Forsythia, blueberries, and fence line.  I have some leaves that have been bagged for a few years now that should be just about ready.  Ideally I should have mulched a while ago, but see above.

- Review TAA and TRA.  Ah, the technicalities involved when your job goes to Mexico.  At least we have this benefit.  Still i need to brush up on all this.

- Open a claim for unemployment.  My old claim closed in November, so I have to open a new one.

- Forward mail to a friend in Ireland.  Some has accumulated since her visit in August.

- Get a haircut.

- Assemble a bookcase.  Several bookcases, really, but I have one in particular in mind.  This one will go on my "living" side of the house.  The others will fill out my "library/storage" side of the house.  That will let me get the rest of my books out of boxes and onto shelves.  I last assembled a bookcase the weekend that John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate.  Time sure flies.

So.  That's just the next week or so.  Anything else?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Almost there...

I think I'll be ready to resume blogging by the weekend.  Maybe.  We'll see.

Had a post-worthy encounter with another blogger the other day, and another blogger has accomplished something very post-worthy.  So I'm already backed up on material, as well as all the other stuff I've promised to write.  (I almost wrote "A Rock Too Heavy To Lift" the other day, in response to someone else's post on the topic.  Someday...)