January 2004 Archives

Singing the Pink Slip Blues

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Hey Dubya, tell us again about the economic recovery. Maybe if we listen to you talk about the fastest rate of growth in twenty years and all, it'll lift the collective gloom that has fallen over me and my colleagues.

Yesterday three guys in my group got the axe. There were eight of us; now there are five. We were all offered a cheesy "buyout": a week's salary for every year of service, up to a maximum of 16 weeks, and six months of health insurance coverage. Three guys were told that if they didn't take the buyout, they were simply going to be fired.

None of the rest of us took the buyout. Nobody dared simply quit without having another job lined up. Four of the five of us who are still employed have kids and provide most or all of the family income.

The company I work for is going through a massive reorganization. The founder and CEO for the past thirty-five years was a guy with a Ph.D. in physics who wanted to do scientific research. He never lost his interest in science, but over the years the company shifted into IT and other services, until the group I work for was the last bastion of research. Late last year the founder retired and was replaced by someone brought in from the outside. Science? Bah. Fourteen groups were combined into five and the managers who have the most blood on their hands at the end of the month will get the most accolades. So my boss's boss's boss's boss doesn't think my group should be part of the company anymore. Scientific research just isn't very profitable.

One of the guys who got axed was past retirement age and isn't feeling too badly about it. One of the guys was already looking for another job. The five of us who survived the culling are trying to convince management to let us cut back on our own hours to save the job of the third guy, but we half expect management to refuse: they want to see a drop in the "head count".

The word "coldhearted" doesn't begin to describe what's going on here. It makes me wonder what these corporate guys believe in. Money rules. Money is everything. Nothing at all matters but money.

Our Glorious Past

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I don't often leave comments on the blogs I read, but once in a while I feel compelled to put in my two cents on a topic.

It happened a couple of days ago on Kevin Drum's site (Calpundit--link on the right.) An argument had arisen as to whether or not the democratic presidential nominee needs to win any southern states. I had no intention of participating in the discussion until one poster made a claim that was false and touched on something I wish Americans knew more about: our own history. He said:

NorthEastern "Liberalism" predates all else in this country. This is where our history and heritage lie.
Not true. As Americans, we have no claim to a pristine, glorious history.

The first European settlement in North America was the Spanish settlement in St. Augustine, Florida, but since Florida wasn't part of the original thirteen colonies it's not accurate to say that U.S. history started there. U.S. history really started with two British colonies, one in the north and one in the south.

In the 16th century a British scouting expedition named the eastern portion of North America not claimed by Spain "Virginia". In 1606 this territory was divided in half, and "patents" for colonization were given to two companies in England: one in London and one in Plymouth. The London company was given a patent for the southern Virginia territory, and the Plymouth company was given a patent for the northern Virginia territory.

The London company was the first to establish a settlement. In 1607 Jamestown (still part of present day Virginia) was founded by 105 settlers funded by the company. They came looking for gold, but in 1612 John Rolfe (who later married Pocahontas) planted tobacco. In 1614 the first crop of Virginia tobacco was sold in England, where there was already a market for it. As the tobacco fields spread workers were needed, and in 1619 the first group of twenty African slaves was brought to Jamestown on a Dutch ship.

Tobacco was the only "cash crop" for decades, and Virginia, which at one time extended west to the Mississippi River, became the largest, wealthiest, and most populous colony. (Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned plantations in present day Virginia, and they both owned hundreds of slaves.)

The Plymouth company was slower to get a successful colony going. In 1607 a settlement named Popham was started in present day Maine, but the settlers returned to England after about a year. In 1620 the Mayflower arrived in present day Massachusetts, and the Plymouth Colony was born. Of the 102 settlers who came on the Mayflower, 41 were Puritans, who, seeking religious freedom, came indentured in service to the company. The settlers were collectively called Pilgrims. In 1630, 900 more Puritans arrived and the Massachusetts Bay Colony was formed. While being governed as a private company, it was in practice a Puritan theocracy: the status of "freeman" was restricted to church members, and suffrage was based on religion. The colony was largely agricultural and it prospered, but it did not enjoy the economic success of Virginia.

So we were divided into north and south before the first successful settlement was ever established. Religious tyranny prevailed in the north, while the south grew rich tobacco plantations based on slave labor.

A nice short history of the original thirteen colonies, with additional links, can be found here.

Politics, Politics, Politics

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Payday. I just sent Wesley Clark another $50, although I'm disappointed that he doesn't have more natural political talent-- the stuff John Edwards has. Hooboy I'd bet he was a good litigator: articulate and persuasive without ever sounding condescending.

Maybe this is what we need; maybe I should have sent the $50 to Edwards. He looks young but he's fifty; older than Kennedy was, right? And he's got those incredibly cute kids, a five-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son. Remember that picture of John-John under the desk in the oval office? Maybe more pictures like that could change the nasty mood in this country.

I like Kerry but I just can't see him having any appeal outside of the northeast, and his "we don't need the south" strategy is just the thing to offend about half the country-- way to go. Dean? No way; who knows what gaffes he might make or hollering he might do during the general election campaign?

Edwards, though... I heard on NPR this morning that he never loses his cool or his temper.

Interesting triviality (to me, anyway)... After the election of 2000, all of the Bush people started referring to Bush as "this president" constantly: "This president believes...", "This president wants...", "This is a president who thinks...", as though they wanted to pound it into our heads: Bush is president; Bush is in charge, Bush is making the decisions. I always suspected this was Karen Hughes' way of making Bush seem more presidential.

And now this verbal tic has been picked up on by others. During last night's debate Kerry referred to Bush as "this president" four times, Dean did it twice, and Edwards once.

Having fun with the SOTU address (these were my favorites):

From Patrick Nielsen Hayden:

"Weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."
I just wanted to hear that again.
"Weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."
Smoking gun-related activity program initiative!
Conclusive evidence-related involvement postulation enterprise!
This isn't just moving the goalposts, it's attaching the goalposts to a booster rocket and shooting them into the Sun. Look, a revitalized space program after all!

and from Slacktivist, the Cheetohs of Mass Destruction:

Kevin Drum has a nice rundown of the Bush administration's incredible shrinking claims about Iraq's alleged weapons and the lack thereof:

March 2003: Weapons of mass destruction.
June 2003: Weapons of mass destruction programs.
October 2003: Weapons of mass destruction-related programs.
January 2004: Weapons of mass destruction-related program activities.

I've mentioned this before, but this reminds me of the Cheetoh-factor, in which every additional adjective makes the noun in question less true:

"Cheese" = cheese
"processed cheese" = cheese, sort of
"processed cheese food" = cheese, sort of, plus other stuff that's not cheese
"processed cheese food snack product" = the food in question is orange, but contains no actual cheese

Licking the Swingset

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I grew up in a tiny house in Michigan. I estimate the house to have been about 580 square feet, but it could have been smaller. It consisted of a livingroom, a kitchen, two bedrooms, and a bathroom, all small. It had a screened front porch and a detached one-car garage.

In a neighborhood built in the inverse of today's development style, our tiny house was on a large lot, and the outdoors was part of our living space. When we weren't in school, my brother and I spent almost all our time outside. When I played with dolls, I played outside. When I painted, I painted outside. And my most vivid memories by far are of playing outside in winter.

I don't remember my mother ever saying "Don't go outside today; it's too cold," and this was Michigan. In the winter she bundled us into "snowsuits" consisting of thickly padded pants and jackets with hoods. We pulled on rubber boots and thick mittens and were sent out to build snowmen and catch snowflakes on our tongues.

I was never aware of the temperature as a child, but I can say with confidence that it was very, very cold. There was deep snow on the ground throughout winter. Enormous icicles hung from the eaves of the house, several inches thick and reaching almost to the ground. I remember igloo-like "forts" built with packed snow that stood solidly through the winter months.

I can't remember ever complaining about the cold, or minding it. We never asked to go back inside because we were cold; we stayed out until our mother called us in because it was getting dark. Then we peeled off wet snowsuits and sat in front of the radiator, the only source of heat in the house, our skin tingling painfully as sensation returned to numbed limbs.

The only winter warning issued by my mother was "Don't put your mouth on the swingset." The swingset in the backyard was metal, and she claimed that our lips and tongues would stick to it, and that it would "take the skin right off." I can't speak for my brother, but for me, issuing any such directive was counter-productive. Of course I put my tongue on the swingset-- not just the tip of it, but a good portion of the flat of it. Laying my tongue on the pole that supported the glider is one of my favorite childhood memories. Indeed, my tongue stuck to the metal. But I didn't panic. I spent several moments savoring this strange new tongue-stuck-to-metal sensation, and then, contrary to my mother's dire predictions, I found that I was able to slowly, carefully, pull my tongue away.

Examining the pole, I could see the print of my tongue. My saliva had turned to a layer of frost.

On "Making Book"

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Since I haven't been involved in fandom since a brief stint in the mid-seventies, much of the book went over my head. I contributed to AZAPA for a brief time, and I think I was at Iguanacon--I seem to remember going back to Phoenix for it. The fact that I'm not sure probably tells you all you need to know. Few of the names in the book are familiar to me. So while I often felt as though I were eavesdropping on inside jokes that I didn't get, I still found it humorous and interesting.

Of course it isn't all just humor and inside jokes. The first serious paragraph that grabbed me was this one on page 99:

To maintain my grasp of the original subject I have to hold the whole thing, with all its attendant matrix connections, entire in my head. Very daunting--the progress of writing feels like herding troops of mice over rough terrain. Little buggers keep popping in and out of sight, diving down holes, stopping to nibble something instead of advancing, and if I get too agitated they scatter in alarm.

The striking thing about this is that having to "hold the whole thing, with all its attendant matrix connections, entire in my head" sounds something like my own explanation of the only way I can work. I described this a bit differently in a comment on Making Light a while ago; I'll go search through the archives for it...

Sometime later, still searching...

Ah, finally. From April '05. The relevant portion is this:

...I've built a career working with very complex computer codes used to study fluid flow. I've been successful because I have the ability to hold in my mind a complex piece of logic, like mapping the way through an elaborate labyrinth in my mind... Anyway, I can only do it when I'm Stone Cold Sober.
...Every Friday I had lunch with "the guys", and we always shared a bottle of wine. I'd have a single glass, or maybe two, with a large sandwich. When I got back to my office I'd have lost the absolute clarity I needed to do my job. Even if I couldn't feel the effect of the alcohol at all, I couldn't hold the labyrinth in my mind...

You see? This is "holding the whole thing...entire in my head"--it's the way I've worked for more than two decades, and this capability is the first thing to go. I love the imagery of the mice, scattering, but the logic of a complex piece of code is labyrinthine. If anything disturbs my thoughts, "the mice scatter," and I have to rebuild the labyrinth from scratch. And yes, I did just mix metaphors there, so sue me. What I'm trying to say is that I think I understand.

And then this, on the next page: "But the window's walled up, so the wall is the view; might as well look at it." What a great way to describe a horrible state of mind that I've also experienced during bouts of depression, when I dwelt on my thought processes and couldn't "think past my own mind."

I can't find the passage now, but I smiled when I read that after going on Cylert, Teresa even did some mending. I know I'm on top of things when I get around to what I call "wardrobe maintenance": mending, hemming, replacing lost buttons. (On the other hand, polishing the copper bottoms of the old Revere Ware borders dangerously on mania.)

The next passage that grabbed me is on page 102:

Once upon a time--once upon a time I was twenty years old and made the Dean's List while holding down three part-time jobs [...] Hardly anyone I know anymore remembers me from that time; long ago, far away, no acquaintances in common et cetera.

I graduated from ASU in December of 1976 and left to attend grad school. I worked at Wendy's in downtown Phoenix the previous summer. I think Teresa wrote that she was 12 years old in 1968 (can't find it now), so she was born in '56? Ah, twenty years old when I knew her.

You see, the thing is, the only picture I have in my head of Teresa is of that Teresa. A bit prickly even then, maybe, yes, but I think I got past that--we chatted quite a bit while clearing tables together at Wendy's. [I don't know if I could get past it today; that "Are you talking to me?" line explains why this is addressed to the General Reader, rather than to Teresa.] I remember that I was reading "A Canticle for Leibowitz" at the time (wow, spelled it right on the first try--yay me.) We talked about books; we talked about school; we talked about various and sundry things. Teresa's hair always looked beautiful and I remember telling her one day that I was jealous because I was never any good at styling my hair. (Btw, her hair was blond then; I've since seen pictures of her with brown hair, but I just can't imagine her with brown hair, even after seeing the pictures. Hunh.)

She told me that she put a huge amount of effort into her hair. She had a body perm, and she washed it and blew it dry every morning, then set it on hot rollers. It was a pain, she said. How many women will admit to putting so much effort into their appearance? Quite a display of candor, and absolutely cool. In short, Teresa was witty, quick-minded, and articulate. And I do seem to remember her telling me she had three part-time jobs. So she not only made the Dean's List while holding down three jobs, she put a good deal of effort into looking good while she did it.

But more than any other, this passage in Making Book hit home hard: "This is something nobody wants to hear, that the profit a man hath for all the labour he taketh under the sun [damn auto-correct spellchecker] amounts to a lottery ticket, time of drawing uncertain"... Oh yes. Oh yes. My comments on Making Light have been few, but this was me too, last February. My husband drew his lottery ticket at birth. We were together for twenty years, during which he studied my emotional reactions, my interactions with other people, and emulated, as though he were trying to be a real person, like Pinocchio wanting to be a real boy. No magic fairy ever came along to make it happen. He never quite got it right. He took his own life in 1999. Is this fair? That his one and only life was so profoundly flawed? I prefer to pretend to believe as the New Agers do: that this was just one go-round, and he planned it all, as a step on the way to enlightenment or evolution of the soul, or whatever. Sounds like wishful thinking, doesn't it? Well, it is. The alternative just makes me want to rend my garments and wail.

Finally, The Pastafazool Cycle. Just LOL.

Anyway, back to 1976, Wendy's again. After a while I got "promoted" to the back cash register. I attribute this prestigious appointment to my having been a math major: I'm dead accurate when it comes to counting change. I missed chatting with Teresa for the rest of the summer.

A few months later I left Phoenix. A couple of years later, maybe, maybe I was looking at photos from Iguanacon, and there was a picture of Teresa looking very different from the Teresa I remembered. She'd abandoned the whole blow-dry-and-set routine; her hair was still blond, but hung in ripples, as from a perm. I don't know if this was linked to the onset of narcolepsy, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that when one feels the need to start dropping things, the hair routine is the first to go.

Many years went by. When I renewed a long-lapsed friendship with L, Teresa was among the people I quizzed her about: what ever happened to this person? that person? Teresa Nielsen? All I remember is a conversation that went something like this:
L: I don't know where she is. [This seems passing strange, somehow, but I was never aware of how various factions of Phoenix fandom broke up and scattered after I left.] She married Patrick Hayden.
Me: uhh, I don't think I ever met him.
L: She has some medical problems. She has narcolepsy.
Me: Narcolepsy?
(At this point we're looking at each other with expressions that say: yeah, weird, huh?)
Me, cluelessly: So, people with narcolepsy fall asleep at random times, right?
L: If you say something funny to her when she isn't expecting it, she falls down.
I think I actually laughed at that point. It just did not come across as serious. You see, my mental image of Teresa was frozen in 1976. In my mind I saw her laugh, fall down, then immediately get up and say something clever.

I found Making Light by chance--a link from Atrios to a post on Electrolite--I can't remember which post. I lurked for a while, then couldn't resist commenting on [begins an even longer search through the archives] this post from November '03. I wrote "Thanks Patrick. I cried," then I lurked on and off for a long time.

Finally, in my own defense: if my comments seem dissonant or insensitive to anyone, it's because my memory of Teresa is frozen in 1976. Reading Making Light from sometime in '03 to the present has given me no indication whatsoever of any reduced cognitive function. Nothing, nada, zip. So it's with great cognitive dissonance of my own that I read "Making Book" and try to square it with the picture of Teresa I still have in my mind.

Teresa's memory of me is undoubtedly frozen as well, and believe me, the idea that anyone's mental image of me is stuck in 1976 makes me cringe. I was not at my best. Oh I was smart, all right, but an emotional basket case: no self-esteem, no identity. I remember one day I wore a Phi Beta Kappa key on a chain around my neck while working at Wendy's. I wasn't trying to be obnoxious; it was my own private joke. Get it? Wearing a Phi Beta Kappa key while working at Wendy's? I never expected anyone to recognize it (that was part of the joke: only I knew what it was--are you on the floor laughing yet?); Teresa was the only person at Wendy's who did. It was a joke to me because I suffered from Woody Allen syndrome: if I could get in, anyone could get in and it wasn't worth belonging. I came by this attitude quite naturally: my father also believed that if I could get in, anyone could get in and it wasn't worth belonging. [You know how they have a banquet when you're inducted? (Yes, they do.) They call your name and you go up and get your key and shake someone's hand? I was the only one there whose parents didn't consider it worthwhile to attend. Some parents came from great distances; mine lived a hundred miles to the north and had nothing in particular to do that evening. Dan Carver went with me, though--thanks, Ug.]

Hunh--this wasn't supposed to be about me; guess it's time for me to stop.

From Sailing Terms Explained For 'Lubbers by Vance Broad:
Between the guns, pyramids of cannon balls stood upon lipped edged trays called monkeys. In some ships these monkeys were made of brass (for ceremonial reasons). In cold weather, the different coefficient of expansion meant that the brass trays would contract faster than the iron cannon balls. Sometimes it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

From Nautical Expressions in the Vernacular by Gibbons Burke:
It is not what you think. On ships, cannon balls were sometimes stacked in what was called a monkey, usually made from brass. When it got really cold the monkey would contract forcing some of the cannon balls to fall off. [Steve Rose (rose@rtl.ENET.dec.com)]


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