Friday, December 30, 2011

NEPA Blogs: 2011 in review

Most of my Blogging Energy Units lately have been going into NEPA Blogs. It's evolved from a little side-project into a full-fledged networking site for bloggers from Northeastern Pennsylvania, complete with an extensive presence in both social media and "old media" outlets (including a weekly TV spot!) - mostly due to the efforts of co-administrator Michelle Hryvnak Davies. And to think that a year ago I was thinking of letting the site slide into oblivion. Read all about it here:

NEPA Blogs: NEPA Blogs year in review 2011

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the book) - a mini-review

So. I just plowed through Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And at the risk of being ostracized by friends from all walks of life, I have to say that I was not all that impressed.

It's hard to say anything about this book without giving something away, so let me start off by saying this:


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I'm still blogging (yeah, yeah, yeah)

OK. I just did a title reference to an Elton John song. Hooboy.

I haven't given up blogging. I'm still at it, trying to post every day (or so) over at NEPA Blogs.  The routine generally goes like this: Michelle finds the blogs, mostly through the NEPA Blogs Twitter followers (yes, we're on Twitter), and passes the sites on to me. I write up posts and add the links. If I have time and have a bunch of blog sites to add, I'll write them all up in one push (often while listening to Awolnation's Sail on continuous repeat - follow that link for the official video, or this one for the funnysexycool version, or this one for the hauntingly perfect one that is just the video to another song by another band, Eye of the Storm by Lovett...which appears to be gone now, dammit, but seems to have been replicated here) and program them to appear one a day for the next few days.

Except for Tuesdays: Tuesday is the day I go on WBRE's PA Live! and present the Blog of the Week, live on TV. Sometime between 4:00 and 5:00, usually around 4:30. This is actually pretty awesome. It's a great show with a focus on Northeastern Pennsylvania, and has probably given lots of people their first-ever chance to be on television. Michelle and I were already seasoned vets when we did our screen tests, thanks to our ComputerWise TV appearance a few months earlier. And like the ComputerWise TV appearance, this is really the result of Michelle's campaign for media domination for NEPA Blogs, which is working out quite well.

I'm also engaged in an increasingly aggressive job search, and doing my damnedest to think outside the box. Blogging and PA Live! both play a role in that, and I find myself becoming more socially active than I once would have considered normal. But all this is focused on a goal.

I've taken up with a writers' group in Scranton, and another one that is online. I'd like to grow as a writer, and improve my work. It's interesting to see the different takes on writing in the group. Many of the members are focused on writing as a profession, on teaching or on winning prizes, and have bought into specific paradigms of writing, some of which I'm only vaguely aware. Other members come from completely different backgrounds. There's a very good mix of ages and experiences in the group. At the very least these writing groups will provide material for some posts - and maybe spin off a blog or two as well.

So: I'm still blogging. I'll have plenty more to say here soon.

Title reference: I'm Still Standing by Elton John.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Myths of unemployment and the economy

There is a small but significant subclass of society whose job it is to go on TV or radio and pontificate and prognosticate about the economy and the current unemployment situation. In some cases they're doing this to actually promote some other agenda: my candidate / group / party is correct, see how their policies are working / see how the other party's policies aren't working / see how our predictions have come to pass. Other times, I am convinced, these are people who are in a blind panic, realizing that they are one executive decision away from joining the ranks of the unemployed, knowing that unless they spout some blather that sounds convincing, they'll be out on the streets looking for work themselves.

Time and time again I hear the same tired statements come up, like some "most dangerous virus ever" scam that keeps showing up in your in-box no matter how many times you tell people to check this damned stuff on snopes already. These myths are popular, persistent, and wrong - but they're easy to repeat, and repeating them sure beats thinking.

- X weeks of unemployment is enough. I hear this one from both sides in almost every discussion.  Sure, the economy is terrible, there are 15 people looking for every job that's available, but enough is enough. After X weeks of unemployment anybody should be able to find a job.The ugly truth is, after an individual has been out of work for a certain amount of time - six months is the number most often quoted - the difficulty of them finding a job goes up exponentially. Perhaps they are judged to be worthless losers, with the stink of failure on them; perhaps companies figure that any job skills they might have had are now completely stale and untransferable. And the reality is, our system is not set up to provide unemployment benefits to everyone who finds themself unemployed for an extended period of time during an economic situation like the one we're in. After a certain amount of time, you're supposed to lose your house, supposed to lose the ability to send your kids to school, or to feed them or clothe them or do anything else. After a certain amount of time, you're supposed to become homeless, and stop being a burden on the government and instead become a burden on charity agencies. Or better yet, just relieve society of the burden of worrying about you.

Truth be told, X weeks of unemployment is not enough, not in this economy. After six months of unemployment, benefits may need to last indefinitely, unless companies change their hiring policies.

- Recession? What recession? That ended years ago.  I keep hearing this one, and it always makes me laugh. The "Recession," as defined by economists, began at some specific date following so many quarters of negative economic growth - and then ended after some other technical milestone was achieved. I know people from Northeastern Pennsylvania who are still in touch with Northeastern Pennsylvania but work for the federal government inside (or just outside) the beltway. And the talk around the water cooler there is all about how the Great Recession is a thing of the past, and things are looking much better now. And in fact, things are doing very well in this particular industry, though the failure of the Supercommittee is supposed to trigger some automatic cuts there that probably won't happen. And if my friend should bring up the misery and hardship being experienced by people back in Northeastern Pennsylvania, such remarks are met with glares or rolling eyes. Of course a bunch of hick coal crackers are going to have it tough. There's winners and there's losers, baby, and we're winners, and they're losers. Deal with it.

- Only core inflation matters, and it's holding steady.  I love Paul Krugman to death. He's funny, he's smart, and he's been doing his damnedest for years to get the economy turned in the right direction, building up a following that has dubbed itself Krugman's Army (a la Dumbledore's Army.) I created a very popular demotivational poster of him that has been posted around the internet without attribution for quite some time and was responsible for many paragraphs of pointless bickering over on But I disagree with him strongly over his focus on core inflation. Core inflation is inflation minus the highly volatile food and energy components. With food and energy factored in, inflation is all over the place. Without food and energy factored in, inflation seems to display trends that are rational, predictable, and can be dealt with by statistical methods.

The problem, of course, is that food and energy are very significant to most people, what with their need to eat and, you know, do things.

That's not the only problem. In Pennsylvania and elsewhere, cost of living adjustments (COLAs) for senior citizens and others on public assistance are based on core inflation. For many years core inflation has remained constant, or even dropped - in any case, it has not increased enough to trigger a cost of living adjustment for the poor and the elderly, which, as noted before, is fine as long as recipients aren't counting on this money to pay for food or heat or electricity. Meanwhile, state legislators just received a COLA of their own, based on a law passed over a decade ago which they are powerless to do anything about. Interestingly, their COLA is not based on core inflation, but includes the volatile (and allegedly ignorable) food and energy components. Because apparently state legislators need to eat more than little old ladies.

(Many legislators have nobly opted to turn down this raise, powerless as they are to actually do anything about it; they will turn over the increase in their paycheck to local organizations. However, as one newspaper pointed out, their pensions will be based on a figure that factors in the pay raise, whether they want it or not.)

- The unemployment rate is X.X%. Now, this has to be qualified as "one of those things I heard somewhere" - in this case, on NPR a few months ago: the unemployment statistics you hear tossed around every month are not based on hard data gleaned from looking at unemployment records. It's based on a monthly survey, a statistical sampling of workers that asks if they are working, if they are looking for work, or if they have given up looking for work. From those survey results statistical analysis techniques are applied to derive a figure that, in theory, corresponds to a real world figure - which is then dutifully reported with decimal-place accuracy. Not that it really matters: "real world" data ignores a lot of realities, too. People who are no longer eligible for unemployment benefits are no longer considered unemployed. Nor are people working for a fraction of their previous income, or those working part-time jobs when they're seeking full-time employment. An engineer working at a deli counter is still considered employed; if that same engineer were to decline to take a job working at a deli counter, he would be considered not unemployed, because his unemployment would be a matter of his own choice.

Active-duty members of the military are considered employed, too. Which is something many people forget: as taxpayers, they are employers as well - of the entire federal government, and of the military it maintains. (In a sense, the September 11th hijackers can be considered "job creators," since their actions have resulted in massive increases of employment in the military, Homeland Security, and throughout the federal government.) But in just a little while, many of these folks we be coming home and finding themselves no longer on active duty. Some of them will return to jobs that have been held for them during their time of service. Some of them will take advantage of preferential hiring policies directed towards veterans - which will, of course, make job searches for non-veterans even more difficult. But many of them will find themselves being suddenly added to the ranks of the unemployed.

I don't agree with a lot of what Ron Paul has to say. Sure, he's popular with the kids, and sounds like a real spitfire, but when you get down to it - well, this is a guy who named his son after a social theorist who built a philosophy around greed and contempt for the common man. But as he pointed out recently, the current unemployment figure (whoopee! it's something like 8.6%, or 8.5712679%, or whatever) is completely bogus and is based on gimmicked factors; he stated that certain economists have confided to him that the true unemployment rate is currently something like 23% - which, honestly, feels a bit closer to reality. But which figure really is?

- The economy is adding jobs! Different pundits will slice and dice and spin the issues differently, and the increase in jobs is a big favorite. From one point of view, a job is a job, whether it's a VP or CEO or shoe-shine boy or mall Santa Claus. During the national census in 2010, many people rightly pointed out that increases in federal jobs were mostly due to hiring of census workers. Is anyone feeling particularly smug about an uptick in hiring in November? While an increase in temporary sales staff, gift wrappers, and Santa and elves atthe local mall may truly be a positive indicator for the economy, it doesn't do much to change the overall jobs picture in the long run.

A better statistic to see would be a histogram of incomes. How many people are earning $10,000 - $20,000? How many are earning $150,000 - $160,000? How much has this histogram shifted in the past year? In the past decade (adjusted for inflation)? Of course, this data is available. But data is for wonks. The common response to data from a TV audience just waiting to see the latest episode of Swamp People or Bachelor Pad or Teen Mom is MEGO - "My Eyes Glaze Over." So the statistics are distilled into meaningless but easily digestible sound bites.

- People would rather stay on unemployment than work. Hey, you know what? This one is true. Sort of.  A person who previously earned $N a year probably won't leap at an opportunity to earn $N/3, particularly if they're currently getting $N/2 in unemployment compensation. That's just good business sense. Of course, all those $N/year jobs have probably gone away - most likely overseas, to where people will work for $N/1000 a year.

Like it or not, downward mobility is now a fact of life, and many people will soon find themselves searching vigorously for jobs that pay a fraction of what they had previously earned. Back during the booming days of the Clinton Administration, it was easy to believe that our economy and society were on an upward trajectory that was sustainable and unstoppable. This may have helped spell doom for the Gore campaign. By rights, Al Gore should have won in a landslide, promising a continuation of the policies that had ushered in a new golden age of prosperity. But candidate Gore didn't run on that platform. Instead, he was the guy who was going to tell you to do your homework, and eat your vegetables, and put on a sweater, and turn off the lights when you leave the room. Bush, on the other hand, was a Rich Guy, and a lot of everyday citizens were looking at their 401k's and thinking "Hey, I'm a rich guy now, just like him, so I'd rather vote for the candidate who I can relate to, the candidate who's going to help me stay rich!" And so a lot of people who really didn't care that much one way or another let the prospect of having this Rich Guy at the helm guide their fingers in the voting booth. Unfortunately, it turned out the Rich Guy was more concerned about other Rich Guys than he was about all those middle-class folk who just thought they were rich. For the first 234 days of his presidency he worked on ways of showing his appreciation to his fellow Rich Guys - and after that, all bets were off as the nation fell into the economic trap sprung by the attacks of September 11, 2001. It's been downhill from there - for most of the country, anyway.

Economic disparity has increased since then. The rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, and many more of the middle class have found themselves joining the ranks of the poor than ascending to the mansions of the rich. The poor have very little discretionary income to invest, while the rich often choose to spend their discretionary income in ways that do not directly benefit the U.S. economy. (Or even indirectly benefit it, if they're clever enough about avoiding taxes on their purchases.) Cheap foreign goods fill the megastores owned by the rich and patronized by the poor. Comparable goods made in America would cost several times as much - a reflection of the income disparity between employees of U.S. and foreign manufacturing.

The result is the new normal. Jobs that pay well have gone away. Income at the jobs that remain is much lower than job seekers want, though it is much higher than what employers would like to pay.

- Last month's figures have been adjusted, and we're doing better than we thought!  I heard this one yesterday and nearly did a spit take. Not only did the make-believe employment statistic for November show that things are suddenly great, but adjusted figures for September and October showed that we had actually previously been doing better than we thought. One of the people being interviewed nearly wet his pants with joy over this. So apparently, any suffering experienced in September and October was just a mass delusion of sorts.

- The key to finding a job is networking! This isn't so much a myth as a massive oversimplification. Networking is a social function, though the sort of networking we're talking about here has a good deal of intentionality overlaid on it. But like many human activities, and like most social skills, this is something for which some people have an aptitude, while others do not. For some people networking comes easily, as easily as striking up a conversation with a stranger or speaking in public. These people are often drawn to cocktail parties and chit-chat, and see networking as perfectly natural. For other, less extroverted individuals, the thought of networking, especially with the intentionality that is required to establish the sort of network that would be beneficial in finding a job, is cripplingly terrifying.

And not all networks are created equal. If you've grown up amongst the country-club set, you likely already have access to a highly valuable network of individuals cultivated over the years or even generations. Finding yourself unemployed is not much of an issue if your father grew up with the father of the right people, or if you know someone who can see to it that the right doors are opened, the right introductions are made, and the right ears are whispered in. For the rest of us, you may find that your list of "friends" on Facebook just isn't going to cut it. Yet attending a LinkedIn mixer may not be quite so valuable if you find it impossible to get access to the appropriate cliques and circles. Establishing a useful social network may require as much groundwork and research as - well, as finding a job once took. And once you've met and connected with the right people, you're still just at square one.

This isn't to say that networking isn't valuable, or won't pay off. It is, and it might. But it's not easy. It will take a lot of work, unless you're one of those lucky individuals who was born into a social network, or who, like Radiohead asserted, finds that meeting people is easy.

- Everybody needs to become an entrepreneur! I heard this assertion once made by one of the guest-of-the-day talking heads on CNN. It sounds brilliant and simple: no one gets rich working for someone else. And even if you are working for someone else, you need to be CEO of yourself.

The problem is, again: entrepreneurship is a skill, a skill for which not everyone has an aptitude. It turns out that this is a testable skill. I tested for it, and it turns out my aptitude for entrepreneurship is nearly non-existent. I can do backbreaking grunt work; I can tirelessly hack away at tedious and meticulous details of complex problems; I can creatively come up with new ideas and better ways of doing things; I can relate to people across a broad spectrum. But if I were to open up my own shop it would probably fail miserably, at least according to this test. And my own experience has borne this out: Years ago I started the site NEPA Blogs - I've told the story several times before. But eventually I just let the site slide into near-disuse. Earlier this year, Michelle Hryvnak Davies, one of the co-administrators at the site, took it upon herself to revive NEPA Blogs and shift things into high gear. And since then we've been going full-steam - not just with a revitalized site, which is now adding more blogs in most months (thanks to Michelle's detective work with Twitter) than we had previously added in entire years, but also with an appearance on ComputerWise TV, a half-hour radio program that may soon become a regular show, and a weekly spot on the local lifestyles program PA Live! (Monday-Friday on WBRE from 4:00 to 5:00; our bit is on Tuesdays around 4:30.) None of this would have happened if I were doing it on my own. But in response to the things Michelle has done, I have found myself doing things far beyond what I ever thought possible. (Maybe one of these days I'll even get on Twitter.)

- The long-term unemployed are lazy and shiftless losers. Looking for a job isn't easy, even in the best of times. And these sure as hell aren't the best of times. But looking for work, day after day, sending out resumés and applications and not hearing anything back, or getting a response and a job offer for a fraction of what you think you should be earning, a fraction of what you had been earning - this has a way of grinding you down. It gets very discouraging and depressing, especially when you're throwing all your efforts into a job search and just coming up with the same job listings, day after day, week after week - and occasionally you see a promising prospect and leap at it, only to find that it's a job you've previously applied for.

It was very strange watching these talking heads on TV and realizing that most if not all of them are enjoying incomes in the six figures, in positions that are relatively secure, leading lifestyles that are for the most part insulated from the effects of the economic downturn. For them this situation is mostly theoretical, just another topic of conversation, one that they hope will result in good ratings. I wonder how the tone might change if they realized they were about to lose their jobs, and their incomes, tomorrow?

Friday, December 02, 2011


I've lost my job twice in my life, both times from the same company.  When I was cut as part of a huge reduction in force that eliminated nearly half my department in 2007, I wasn't too worried. I had a great resumé, or so I thought, with a degree in Physics and (at the time) over sixteen years of experience in industry, in positions ranging from basic grunt work to statistical analysis to management. I would be fine. Finding a job would be no problem.

Six months later, the company called and asked if I would like to come back - as a basic grunt, with a 1/3 cut in pay. I jumped at the chance, since nothing else had presented itself in that time.

For the next three years I buried myself in this job, racking up as much overtime as I could. With enough overtime I could almost earn as much as I had been earning before I lost my job in 2007. And there was always a chance that the industry would pull itself out of the slump that was killing it, that it would latch onto new and innovative products and services that would carry it forward through the next decade. And if that happened, that better jobs would appear on the boards, jobs similar to the one I had lost in 2007.

That didn't happen. Market forces and the loss of a major client (not through any fault at the manufacturing level) forced another major reduction in force at the end of 2010. Hundreds of employees lost their jobs. Including me.

Because a lot of the work that we lost was now being manufactured in Mexico, those of us who lost our jobs in this layoff were eligible for some special services offered by the federal government. These services included retraining, primarily to learn things like medical records filing or basic computer skills. I opted to put my efforts into finding a job. Again, great resumé, now over nineteen years of experience in industry, etc.

Thing is, employers don't see things the way I expected they would. I've worked as a menial but fairly well-paid menial grunt, but any potential employer who is offering a job at that level may look at the other parts of my resumé and say "Whoa, degree in Physics? Statistical Process Control Coordinator? DVD Asset Manager? This guy doesn't want to work here. Next."  And any potential employer offering a higher-level position might say "Yes, you have a degree in Physics, but you haven't used it. Nineteen years experience in industry? Maybe that will come in handy if we need a janitor. Next."

So around September I decided to give up. Take advantage of the training offer. Go back to school. And right on cue, the phone rang. Would I be interested in coming back to my old position on a temporary basis during the busy season? I would be working the regular 4x4 schedule, either 36 or 48 hours each week, with the option of working as much overtime as I wanted.

I didn't answer right away. The money would be fantastic. The job was slated to run from late September through mid-November. But how would this affect my eligibility for training? I called the people who would know at the relevant agencies. They looked into it, and they believed it would essentially stop the clock while I was working - deadlines for enrollment would be pushed out during my period of employment. And, more importantly, if I were to refuse the job, I might very well find myself ineligible for further unemployment benefits.

I took the job. I didn't have a choice, really. But I was really looking forward to earning money again.

And earn I did. A 48 hour week (for 52 hours pay, by overtime rules) followed by two 60 hour weeks (with 70 hours of pay.) I had visions of 72 and 84 hour weeks coming up (with 88 and 106 hour pays, respectively.) In the few weeks I would be there, I would sock away thousands of dollars.  (I forgot about the bite that federal, state, and local taxes take out of your paycheck. That was a bit of a shock.)

But things started to dial back fairly quickly. I got in my 48 hour week and two 60 hour weeks, but then my next week was a measly 36 hour week. And the next one...well, it had been scheduled for 36 hours: twelve hours on Sunday, then twelve hours each on Friday and Saturday. I worked Sunday and things were going full-steam, but on Friday there was an eerie quiet to the plant. It wasn't until I got onto the floor that I discovered I was running some of the only systems that were operating. And that didn't last: someone with higher seniority wanted to work that night, so after four and a half hours I found myself handing off the presses and going home.

I didn't work the next day. Or the next week. Or the week after that. Though I was effectively "on call" each night that I was scheduled to work. I had to sleep as though I were on night shift, and by 8:00 each morning I would know if I had work at 6:00 that night.

The week after that I worked - a long week of 54 hours, since we were transitioning from the 4x4 to what I call the "krazy kalendar" of three (or four) twelve-hour days capped by four- or six- hour days. The week after that was Thanksgiving week. We were scheduled to start back on Tuesday, though I was cancelled for that day. Shockingly, I was scheduled to work on the night before Thanksgiving, but at the last moment - six hours after the "final" work schedule had been posted, and minutes before I was heading into the shower - I was told that I was being cancelled for the night. Thursday was Thanksgiving (just another day without pay for me) and Friday we were shut down.

This week I've been cancelled every day.

I expected this "temporary" assignment to end the week before Thanksgiving. It didn't. The person who brought me in, the person who said he would answer any questions I had, lost his job a few weeks after I started. I don't know if there's anyone left to turn this off. I don't know if there's any reason for the company not to have a "temporary" operator on reserve at all times, just in case.

I went in to the employment office to talk about the educational program. And I found - surprise, surprise - that the clock had been ticking all this while. If I wanted to take advantage of the educational benefits, I had to find something immediately. And since I was technically working, albeit temporarily and sporadically, I would have to find a class schedule that would work around a night shift "krazy kalendar" schedule. And I couldn't quit my (temporary, sporadic) job or I would lose all my benefits, including the educational benefits.

I still think I have a great resumé. I still think someone somewhere will see value in my educational background and in my nineteen years of experience in industry. And I have spent much of the last year - the parts where I wasn't working or looking for work - learning on my own, and developing and honing new skills. I haven't given up on finding a job, not yet. I will keep looking. But, who knows? Maybe next week my "temporary" job will call me back in to work again. Who would have thought that a temporary job would become a trap?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Who is to blame for the state of the economy?

When I lost my job back in 2007, I knew things were bad. I had hope that they would get better. They didn't, but the problem Like it was just the natural consequence of a series of bad decisions made on a national level. Things that were unintentional consequences of basic greed. Things that could be corrected, as long as some people were willing to turn down their rapacity for the sake of keeping the system going. No point in killing the goose that lays the golden egg, right?

When I lost my job at the end of 2010 it felt more personal. Like it was a consequence of bad decisions made on a more...local level. Someone had screwed up, badly, and lots of other people were going to pay the price.

Even then, even after all those years of watching the national and global economic situation go from bad to worse, even after watching Pyrrhic defeat after Pyrrhic defeat in the political arena, even after saying it myself, I still didn't really believe that people would really and truly intentionally cripple the economy in an effort to hurt their political opponents, and to hell with the consequences, to hell with all the people who would be hurt. Even after Democratic members of Congress came out and stated directly that Republicans were intentionally hurting the economy to hurt President Obama's chances of re-election. Even after employers came out and said they refused to do any more hiring until that half-breed Kenyan-born Muslim socialist fascist was out of the White House.

Until John Boehner got up and said, yes, that's exactly what we're doing.

That was months ago. It hasn't gotten any better since then. The political battle is ramping up. Job seekers are being held hostage. The economy is being held hostage. Republicans want to maximize economic suffering to drive home the point that Americans made a terrible, terrible mistake when they elected Barack Obama in 2008.

Instead I think the point they are making, and underlining in red, and circling and drawing arrows and lightning bolts next to, is what a terrible, terrible mistake it was to load up Congress with even more Republicans in 2010.

Unfortunately, a large proportion of the electorate is soft-minded and easily manipulated. Yes, they say, Barack Obama is a failure, just like Rush Limbaugh said he would be! And besides, those Democrats are evil, what with their love of abortions and gay marriage and the Fourteenth Amendment and all that other un-American crap. I gotta vote Republican!

Will Democrats be able to persuade the electorate otherwise? If they can't, then I honestly think that they deserve to fail. And then our country will be completely back in the hands of the people who brought us to this point in the first place.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Do you have a blog? Why Facebook may not be enough

Every Tuesday I'm at the studio at WBRE in Wilkes-Barre at 3:30 to be ready for my 4:30 appearance on PA Live! There are always other people on the set - chefs, bands, people presenting information about upcoming events, people from other organizations - and we usually strike up conversations before the show starts at 4:00.

One of the questions I always ask, after identifying myself as the representative of NEPA Blogs, is "Do you have a blog?"

In some cases the answer is "Yes," and I get the information to list them on NEPA Blogs. Sometimes the answer is "No, we have a website," which is also fine. But many times the answer is "No, but we have a Facebook page." And these people don't realize the opportunities for publicity that they're missing.

It's important to draw a distinction between a website, a blog, and a Facebook page. A "website," in the traditional sense, is a mostly-static (from the point of view of content) page that is set up to provide information to the world via the Internet. Sometimes it will have regularly updated content, or a calendar, or some other feature that provides information that changes over time. But for the most part, a website viewed tomorrow will look very similar to that same website viewed next week. This sense of familiarity actually provides a lot of the usefulness of the website.

"Blogs" are generally more dynamic than websites. By design they feature frequently-updated content. While the uses of blogs are many and varied, most of them strive to provide a more direct interaction between the blogger and the blog readers. For someone involved with an event or organization, this is a superb way of reaching out to the public and drawing them in, much more friendly and engaging than a simple website.

A "Facebook page" can be more intimate yet - and that's the problem. Facebook follows a "closed cocktail party" format: anybody can join, but only members can interact or (in many cases) even view content. And while it seems that everybody in the world is on Facebook, this is not in fact the case. So if you've put your event or organization on a Facebook page, you've actually just limited the people who can see the information about your event to other Facebook users. Worse, if your Facebook page is a group restricted to "members only," or if you're a performer with a "friends only" Facebook profile, you've limited your exposure even further.

I've seen this happen in several cases. Several benefit events that have had only a Facebook  page, a page that was not something you would come across by accident. A young singer who said "I'm on Facebook and YouTube," but whose name was common enough to make it nearly impossible to find on either - and when I did find her on Facebook, her page was "friends only."

If you're looking to publicize yourself, your group, or your event, Facebook is a great way to share the information with people on your "Friends" list. It's a good way of building a "street team" of people who will spread the word for you. But it's a lousy way to communicate with the general public or the world at large. Not everybody who has access to the Internet is on Facebook, and not every search engine is going to index Facebook results the way they index everything else. Not everybody who is on Facebook is going to pick their way through the ever-changing complexities of its structure to find you.

(And keep in mind: what you've put on Facebook isn't yours. It's Mark Zuckerberg's playground, and he's just letting you play there. And when he rearranges it for the umpteenth time next week or next month or (or more likely and) next year, there's a very good chance your page or group or event won't function or be accessible in the same way anymore - if it's even available at all.)

Facebook is nice, it has its uses. It's a good way of communicating with a restricted group of people. But for getting your message out to the public at large about yourself, your group, or your event, get yourself a website. Or, better yet, get yourself a blog. They're free, they're easy to do, and they're a great way of connecting with the world.

Friday, November 25, 2011


When I'm adding new blogs to NEPA Blogs, one of the first things I do is check for an "About" page. These are usually brief statements about the blog and/or its author, and they're a great way to get a quick feel for the blog. So it was fairly amusing when I realized, after all these years of blogging, I don't have an "About" for Another Monkey. So here goes.

My name is Harold Jenkins, but I blog under the name d.b. echo (usually all lowercase, but not always.) d.b. echo is the Mark Twain to my Samuel Clemens; it's a pseudonym, a nom de blog, but not exactly a closely guarded secret. I started Another Monkey back in May of 2004, and since that time I've actually started quite a few more blogs. Many of them are "spinoff" blogs that republish posts that already appeared here; the idea is that these blogs would collect posts on a single topic, like gardening or computer problems, so that I could get more specifically-targeted ads. 'Cause, y'know, blogging is all about the advertising revenue streams. Chya. I barely bring in enough each year to pay for the ink and paper in my printer.

(One blog that I am particularly proud of, that didn't start as a scheme to increase advertising revenue but rather as a scheme to increase site traffic, is NEPA Blogs. It has grown into something bigger and better than I ever envisioned it. But you can read all about it over there.)

Another Monkey is a lot of things: an outlet for my writing compulsions, a place to stretch my writing muscles, somewhere that I can post my photographs and my ideas and opinions. It's an autobiography in a million parts, an external memory storage, a place where I can share things with friends and random strangers alike. For a while I tried to do a post-a-day here, and I was able to keep it up for many months. But eventually it started to feel like I was just posting to post - and worse, the frequency of posts meant that some posts slipped off the front page before semi-regular visitors got a chance to see them. So I stopped, or at least dialed it back. Besides, a lot of the time when I'm not posting here I'm posting on NEPA Blogs or one of my other sites.

So. Read. If you see something you like, come back and read some more. Maybe I'll have something new for you then, or maybe you'll find something of interest among the more than two thousand posts I've already written.

Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoy your time here, and I hope you come again.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Holiday Reruns: The Littlest Turkey!

What's more traditional than gathering the kids around the TV to watch the same damned holiday specials on TV, year after year? ...well, at least that used to be the tradition, before a semi-infinite number of channels reduced the likelihood that you would be able to even find the specific program you're looking for to close to nothing. And besides, what kids want to watch TV shows about Charlie Brown's fixation with a withered branch of a tree (the moral of the story being that the true Christmas spirit came from the decorations on Snoopy's doghouse, which magically transformed the pathetic little tree into a thing of commercialized beauty), or a show about a green furry prowler trying to destroy Christmas, or a show featuring the Winter Warlock or the Bugermeister Meisterburger? They've got better things to do, like play the latest Call of Duty video game and learn what real fun it is to be in the military and kill people while having an infinite number of lives themselves.


Without further ado, here's a holiday rerun that's become a tradition at Another Monkey: The Littlest Turkey!

The Littlest Turkey was originally posted November 16 (Part 1) and 17 (Part 2 and Conclusion), 2005, and was originally posted complete in one post on November 24, 2005.

D.B. Echo

Once upon a time there was a farm where turkeys lived. All of them were young and plump, big and strong and proud. All of them except one. He was smaller than all the other turkeys. He was called the Littlest Turkey.

The Littlest Turkey wanted to run and play with the other turkeys, but they didn't want to play with him. "Go away, Littlest Turkey," they would say. "Come back when you've gotten bigger."

But the Littlest Turkey was sure he was as big as he was going to get. He tried to eat as much as he could, but he never seemed to get as big and plump as the other turkeys. And he knew that unless he got big and plump like the other turkeys, he would never get to go to the Laughter House.

The Laughter House was a wonderful place. The Littlest Turkey had never been in there. He knew that only the big and plump turkeys would get to go inside the Laughter House. He had seen them go in once, and had heard their squawks and gobbles of laughter for a little while. It must be wonderful in there, the Littlest Turkey thought. All those turkeys go in to laugh, and none of them had ever come out again. How much fun they must be having!

The Littlest Turkey decided that, big and plump or not, he would get into the Laughter House the next time they let the turkeys in.



Part 2
D.B. Echo

The weather started getting cooler, and the leaves on the trees started to change colors. All the turkeys knew that soon it would be time for the biggest holiday of the year, Turkey Day.
"Just before Turkey Day is when they take the big and plump turkeys into the Laughter House," thought the Littlest Turkey. "But this time I'm going to get in there, too!"

It wasn't long before the big day came. All of the big and plump turkeys lined up to go into the Laughter House. The Littlest Turkey waited near the entrance of the Laughter House, then squeezed in between two very big and plump turkeys. No one noticed him because he was so little.

The Laughter House was dark inside, and there was a sort of moving sidewalk there that was taking turkeys into another room, where he could hear gobbles and squawks of laughter. One by one the turkeys hopped up to ride the sidewalk. The Littlest Turkey hopped up, too.
The turkey in front of him, whose name was Tom, turned around. "Go away, Littlest Turkey," he said. "Come back when you are bigger."

"Yes, go away," said the turkey behind him, whose name was also Tom. "They do not want little turkeys at the Market. Only big and plump ones."

"No," said the Littlest Turkey. "I want to go to the Market with you." He had never heard of the Market, but he realized that it must be even better than the Laughter House.

A Man spotted the Littlest Turkey. "Go away, Littlest Turkey," he said. "Come back when you are bigger."

"Oh, please, Mr. Man," said the Littlest Turkey. "I do so want to go to the Market with the other turkeys."

"Very well," said the Man. "We've got a quota to meet, anyway."

The Littlest Turkey rode the sidewalk into the other room. He wondered what things would be like at the Market.


D.B. Echo

The Littlest Turkey was cold. He was colder than he ever remembered being before. But then again, it was hard to remember much since they had chopped his head off.

He was in a case with the other turkeys, the big and plump turkeys. Turkey Day was coming soon, and people were coming to the Market to pick turkeys to take home.

They always seemed to want the big and plump turkeys. One time a little girl had seen him in the case. "Mommy, mommy, look at the little turkey," she said. "I want to take home the littlest turkey."

"No, dear," her mother said. "We are having many people over for Thanksgiving. We need a big, plump turkey."

One by one the other turkeys left the Market to go home with people. Turkey Day was coming soon, and people were taking away more and more of the big and plump turkeys. But no one wanted the Littlest Turkey.
Finally, the day before Turkey Day came, and the Littlest Turkey found himself all alone in the case.

"How sad," he thought. "No one wants to take me home."

It was late in the day, and the Manager was about to close down the Market for the night. Suddenly a Man came into the store.

"I have a coupon," he said, "for a free turkey. Do you have any left?"

"You're in luck," said the Manager. "I have one left." He showed the Man the Littlest Turkey, all alone in the case.

"It's a little small," the Man said. "But I guess beggars can't be choosers. Besides, it's just me and my wife this year. A little turkey might be just what we need."

The Manager took the Littlest Turkey out of the case and traded him to the Man for the coupon he was holding. "Happy Thanksgiving!", he said to the Man.

"I'm not going to be left behind for Turkey Day," thought the Littlest Turkey happily as the Man put him in the trunk of his car. "I'm so happy. But I'm so cold." He rolled around a little as the car pulled out of the parking lot. "I sure hope I'm going someplace warm."


Monday, November 21, 2011

The Sideshow Gathering 2011, Day 3

The third and final day of the 2011 Sideshow Gathering was Sunday, November 6. The atmosphere seemed slightly different when I got there. With Franco gone, uncertainty had loomed over the 2011 Gathering right up until its opening. Now, were we present for the last day of the last Gathering, ever?

One of the local newspapers had run an article on the Gathering that morning, and despite some factual inaccuracies it still caused some excitement - to the point that every copy quickly sold out in the hotel. The TV on a stand with a DVD player told us that this day would be opening differently from the other two, and it did. Cris Siqueria, our exotic visitor from a faraway land (well, Brazil), showed a video she had compiled of her time spent this Summer with Jim Zajicek's Big Circus Sideshow.

After Cris's presentation was done, Tyler Fyre took the stage to open the day's festivities with an award - the Lifetime Achievement Award, presented to living legend Harley Newman. Harley is...well, simply amazing. He embodies the finest traditions of performers from the sideshow and beyond, but at the same time he rejects the hackneyed clichés and tropes that have become ingrained into many of the things that are seen as tradition. He is a former clown who brings a level of seriousness and intensity to everything that he does. And he is a teacher who is on a lifelong quest to learn. He has served to inspire many others at the Gathering to go beyond the things they are comfortable with, to embrace new challenges and experiment with new routines and presentations.

Harley Newman reflects on the Lifetime Achievement Award, presented to him by a man dressed like a pimp on his way to a funeral.

Next up was The Magic of Steve Hyde and Melanie. Melanie made a special trip in to the area to be able to perform with Steve at the Gathering once again, as they have for many years. Steve wowed the audience with stage magic and mentalist acts, routines that are as much a part of the historic traditions of Sideshow as sword swallowing and glass walking.

The Candlelight Award from the Circus Historical Society was presented this year to the Cheeky Monkey Sideshow, for keeping the best traditions of Sideshow alive.

Tyler Fyre, dressed as a pimp going to a funeral, presents the Candlelight Award to the Cheeky Monkey Sideshow, here wearing their civilian costumes.  Thrill Kill Jill and little Hank Lightning guard the rear.

Harley Newman returned to the stage to perform some routines. Here he finds himself all tied up by a couple that claims to have no prior knowledge of rope play.

After Harley's act it was time for another award: the Act of the Year. Presented for only the second time ever, it was awarded to Keith Nelson of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, whose incredible energy and exuberance during his bowl spinning / Kendama blockhead attempt had the entire audience on the edge of their seats. (To see Keith complete the Kendama blockhead, see here.)

Keith made an observation that got to the heart of what the Sideshow Gathering is all about: You want to bring your "A" Game to the Gathering, but in the back of your head you're reluctant to, because you know that the next year, everyone else will also bring your "A" Game! But that's what is so great about the Gathering: different groups from all over the country see what other groups are doing. And they learn and grow, maybe copying this routine here, this bit of patter there, introducing new routines and improving old ones. The Gathering is a fantastic opportunity to learn and to teach, and like Harley Newman, Keith Nelson is a fantastic teacher. If anyone comes to the Gathering next year having absorbed and incorporated some of his energy and exuberance into their routines, everyone will be in a better place as a result.

Next up it was time for Kellan, a performer I had never seen before but who was well-known to many of the other sideshow performers from his behind-the-scenes work. Here he hangs a cinder block by chains connected by carabiners to holes in the lobes of his ears, a cinder block which Alex Doll is about to smash with a sledgehammer while it dangles over his groin.

Kids, feel free to try this at home. Really.

The Doppelganger Circus Sideshow from Detroit took the stage for the second time next. Doc Tor Arcana and Rachel Rampage ran through a different set of routines than they had on Friday night, including the classic "Metamorphosis" routine (apparently a first for the Sideshow Gathering) and another weight-hanging-from-earlobes bit (Rachel with a bowling ball.)

Then it was time for the final act of the weekend, a duo who had never before performed at the Sideshow Gathering, and were performing for the first and only time that weekend. The Scarborough Sideshow was loud, exuberant, over-the-top, and...well, they took every routine right up to the limits of good taste, and the kept right on going. Even things that wouldn't possibly be considered sideshow acts.

Like, say, a Neti Pot drinking fountain...

The Scarborough Sideshow brought down the house, almost literally. Tyler gave his closing remarks amongst the wreckage and rubble on the stage. He expressed gratitude to Franco, hope for the future, and bestowed a touching and beautiful Sideshow Blessing for the coming year.

"The Von Trap Family would say
Farewell, Au Dieu, Auf Wiedersein, Goodbye.
We sideshow folk say,
May you have Sunny Days, Short Jumps, Straw Houses, and Soft Grass. See You Down The Road."*

And that was that. No one was in a hurry to leave. Wet eyes were everywhere, as people made their goodbyes, packed up their stuff, or got ready to break down the room. Uncertainty lingered in the air.

So it was with great excitement that I read this message a few days later from Kim, Franco's widow and now the organizer for Inkin' the Valley and the Sideshow Gathering:

It's Official!! The Inkin' the Valley Tattoo Convention and SideShow Gathering will go on again in 2012!! The Ballroom in The Woodlands Inn & Resort is on reserve. We sincerely want to thank everyone involved and want everyone to know how much appreciated you all are. We look forward to next year and hope to have just as much fun and more. We love you all wish to see everyone again in 2012!!
...and then this:
It's even MORE OFFICIAL! The Inkin' the Valley Tattoo Convnetion & SideShow Gathering will be held on the 2nd, 3rd, & 4th of November 2012!! Mark your calendars and clear your schedules we will be back and even bigger in 2012!
So, there we are. The Sideshow Gathering will be back!

*Added 12/16/2011, courtesy of Tyler Fyre.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Sideshow Gathering 2011, Day 2

The second day of the Sideshow Gathering got off to a start bright and early Saturday at 3:00, ran until 7:00, took a break until 9:00, and then got going again, ending with the Sideshow Auction, which ran until 2:00 in the morning!

Before the start of the day's festivities I took some time to look over the many items, old and new, that would be available for bid later that evening. There were photos by Diane Falk, artwork by Ashleigh Talbot, original tattoo flash art by Charon Henning, and even stage-worn thongs that had one year ago graced the nether regions of Tyler Fyre and Magic Brian, plus many, many other items...some of which probably shouldn't be mentioned on the record!

The first act of the day was the Doppelgänger Circus Sideshow, a young duo from Detroit that took its inspiration from Tyler Fyre, and formalized its training at Coney Island. Here Doc Tor Arcana assists Rachel Rampage down the Blade Ladder.

Harley Newman protegé Josh Peters, a.k.a. Josh B'Gosh, gets wrapped in a chain while wearing a straitjacket. Safety first!

Harley Newman lets us see what's on his mind.

Keith Nelson of the Bindlestiff Family Circus brings the abbreviated version of his two-and-a-half hour lecture on the history of tops to a close with a demonstration of tricks with a nine-pound top.

Last year it was a record-setting mass Human Blockhead, with dozens of people onstage simultaneously shoving things up their noses. For this year we were treated to the World's Largest Simultaneous 10-in-1, with more than ten acts being performed onstage at the same time by dozens of performers.  Sword swallowers, human blockheads, jugglers, hoopers, a straitjacket escape, strongman acts, the Iron Throat, Harley Newman as the Man Who Can't Be Hanged, Professor Fountain's demonstration of Chapeaugraphy, and many others, all alive and on stage!

Then Fancy Talker Professor Sprocket again told us the remarkable tale of the scientific miracle of Olga Hess, the Headless Woman. See how the amazed public crowds around her headless body, astonished and filled with wonderment!

Up next was the latest incarnation of the Crispy Family Carnival: Acoustic Ross, Tangy Tart, and Mr. Crispy himself, here seen swallowing a sword.

Swallowing an energized neon tube is one of the most insanely dangerous things that you will ever see performed onstage - so insanely dangerous that neon tube manufacturers have gotten wise and routinely refuse any requests to construct anything that can be used in such a way.  Much safer is the LED sword which Mr. Crispy is swallowing, which is cooler, will not shatter, and is not filled with toxic chemicals.

Crispy and Tangy Tart begin to dance - barefoot on glass - to Tom Lehrer's Masochism Tango, as played by Acoustic Ross.

Next up was the Knotty Bits Sideshow from Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Michigan was very well represented this year!) Here Sylver Fyre (no relation to Tyler!) whips a carnation held in the mouth of Gwyd the Unusual while sorting out some relationship issues.

The end of the first half of the day came with the presentation of the Franco Kossa Memorial Blow-Off. Plans had been in place from the start for Franco to be present at the 10th Annual Sideshow Gathering one way or another, but at his funeral ThrillKill Jill had a brainstorm: "D'you think we can ding it?" - that is, could the presence of Franco's cremated remains  be turned into a way of generating much-needed funds for the Gathering? Well, of course, the answer was "yes!" And so, for a small free-will donation, the gathered crowd was invited to pay tribute to the founder, organizer, and guiding force behind the Gathering, ensconced in a small booth graced by a James Mundie poster featuring Franco and a slightly-modified version of the traditional Sideshow lure: "NOT Alive on the Inside!" The line wrapped halfway around the room.

The second half of the night began with the Olde City Sideshow from Philadelphia. Danny Borneo opened by announcing that, unlike last year, he was not completely drunk, and that he needed a shave - something Martin Ling the Suicide King was only too happy to assist with, with a shower of sparks from a grinding wheel.

After Danny was made presentable, it was time for Reggie Bugmuncher to do her thing. Here she prepares to begin her diet of worms, which she would follow up with some very fresh sushi.

The venue did not allow fire-eating acts, but apparently a loophole allowed for propane torches.

Martin Ling the Suicide King began his bit with some sword swallowing.

He then moved on to the curved katana, which he swallowed while angling his body to accept it. Despite being the Suicide King, he was very nearly the victim of a homicide as Danny Borneo gave him a case of the giggles as he began to swallow the deadly sword.

And then...well, don't try this at home. Or in a performance. Ever.

Martin then did a few other brutal acts, including stopping a fan with his tongue, washing his face in broken glass, and then standing and twisting in the glass. And then jumping in it.

Reggie did her Anatomical Wonder bit, squeezing through a tennis racket. Here she does the Yogi Gut Suck, to make the passage of the racket easier. (I have seen video of someone shoplifting record albums using this trick: he sucked in his gut, filled his abdominal cavity with a stack of albums, pulled his sweatshirt back down over them, and then tried to sneak out of the store.)

The last act of the night was the Cheeky Monkey Sideshow. Here Mab Just Mab swallows balloons to the tune of "99 Luftballoons," which was rechristened "99 Red Balloons" in English. Trinket keeps count. This is number 1.

Sally the Cinch is a member of the troupe I have seen twice at Gatherings but have never seen perform until now. Here she is showing how she earned her name, "cinching" her waist  to an incredibly small size.

The Cheeky Monkeys, joined by burlesque dancer and honorary Cheeky Monkey Cherrie Sweetbottom, let their freak flags fly and sign off with a performance their infectious theme song.

The end of the second day's performances saw the beginning of the Sideshow Auction. Items old and new, rare and strange (and in some cases, unknown) were bid on in a fiercely competitive auction. (The quote of the weekend was Alex Doll's "Dammit, Kevin!" as sideshow banner painter Kevin Gerrone bid a coveted item out of her reach.) More fascinating than the items themselves were the stories spun by the old-timers running the auction, especially living legend Al Stencell, shown onstage as Furry Couch (aka Professor Ouch) displays Charon Henning's original artwork of various stylized "10"s created especially for 10th Anniversary Sideshow Gathering commemorative tattoos.

Gradually the pieces were auctioned off, the stories were told, and the Gathering broke up for the night - or, rather, the morning, as it was already 2:00! The final day's festivities would begin before we knew it, and would end before anyone wanted them to.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Sideshow Gathering 2011, Day 1

I was going to try to do this all as one post, but there's just too much to say! So I'll break it into posts for each day.

After founder Franco Kossa's death and some other major setbacks earlier this year there was a question as to whether this year's Sideshow Gathering would happen at all. But the decision was made that the show must go on - and it did!

That didn't mean it would go off without a hitch. The night before the show the emcees, Tyler Fyre and Thrill Kill Jill of The Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow, along with their four-month-old son Hank and several hundred pounds of props and gear, found themselves stranded 150 miles south of the venue by a broken-down vehicle. Fortunately rescue was just a few hours behind, and they were all able to make it to the show on time.

The weekend featured many familiar faces from years past, plus a few acts I had never seen before. First up was James "Gentleman Jim" Stilianos, who did an assortment of juggling routines, including one where he juggled machetes while standing on a board balanced on a short length of 10" diameter plastic pipe.

Up next were the Bruise Brothers, who bickered and fought like the brothers they are. Both standing over six feet tall, they were the biggest act of the weekend!

Tyler and Jill did a set as well, where Tyler probably set the record for "most swords swallowed with a baby strapped to your chest." (We believe Jill already has the record for "most swords swallowed with a baby in your belly.") Here Hank seems to be stunned by his father's determination to swallow two swords at once.

Here Hank makes his debut as the world's youngest sword swallower. It's not a sword per se, but rather a binky with a sword handle. And Hank spit it out and sent it rolling across the stage shortly after this picture was taken.

Later Hank did a straitjacket escape, from a hand-knitted baby-sized straitjacket, as used at all baby insane asylums.

Up next was Keith Nelson of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. I have read about the Bindlestiffs and was very happy to see that they would be represented at the Gathering. Keith gave an amazing performance, full of energy and enthusiasm, as he ran around at a madcap pace trying to get four bowls spinning on four posts while trying to flip two spoons into two cans and catch a ball in a cup mounted on a spike jammed into his nose; as James Taylor of Shocked & Amazed put it, "The only guy on Planet Earth who can tell you his act is likely to fail, then has it fail, and he gets virtually a standing ovation. Now THAT'S talent."

Next came The Reverend Tommy Gunn, currently the sole ambulatory member of FreakShow Deluxe, who did a series of increasingly dangerous routines to the shouts of "MORE DANGER!" until the confines of the small stage and low ceiling forced him to abandon his whip act after the third time the whip became entangled in his hair, clothing, and props, electing to try something less dangerous and eliciting cries of "LESS DANGER!" from the audience. Here he dangles from chains attached to his nipples what he insists is a solid gold chandelier, coated with bronze to protect the finish.

The penultimate act of the night was a new one for me, The Unholy Sideshow.  They did a mix of acts that I have seen done before as well as a few that were new to me. They brought a youthful energy to the show which made me think that they will be interesting to watch in the coming years. As they are relatively local, based in New Hope, PA, I may not have to travel far to see them.

They ended their show with the first burlesque act of the weekend, featuring a lovely young lady (UPDATED 6/14/2012: who I just found out goes by the name Catalina Askew) who, shall we say, bowled over the crowd.

Fancy Talker Professor Sprocket closed out the first night's festivities with a presentation of Olga Hess, the Headless Wonder. He presented her again on Day 2, so I will include her photos there.

Thus ended the first night of the 10th annual Sideshow Gathering. And there were still two more days to go!