There are some folk who don't see the gem inside my rough exterior who might consider me a hot head. To which I say a hearty "bite me". But let this opinion be a caution that within this blog may lurk items of a venting nature or perhaps those which might be considered a rant. So be it. Proceed with caution. You have been warned.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Some Holiday Cheer

Last Sunday I participated in a holiday tradition I first experienced over forty-nine years ago. That makes me a youngster in the history of this tradition which began two hundred and seventy years ago in Dublin Ireland. That tradition was a performance of George Frederic Handel's oratorio "Messiah". This masterpiece has never fallen entirely out of favor since its beginnings and has survived grotesque though well meaning "editing/arranging" as well as monster concerts with numbers of performers undreamed of (and probably rightly scorned) by Handel.

Evidently it was sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s when the phenomenon of "scratch" or "sing it yourself" Messiahs began to spring up in the United States. These events feature a core group (the orchestra and soloists) prepared in advance to which the audience itself adds the chorus parts. I began singing in these 25 years ago and for the last twelve have played in the orchestra for one that has a history of over 26 years in the same city.

Evidently you don't have to be Christian (or really a very good musician!) to participate in these as I have seen people happily singing their hearts out that never darken a church doorway the rest of the year. And as our conductor reminded the audience this year, such an event now joins a community of hundreds of these events involving thousands of people around the world.

What seems remarkable is that in this era of mass commercialization of the holiday season along with its frustrations and abuses, the spirit of good will, brotherhood, hope, and joy springs forth in these performances. As I sit in the orchestra and look out into the audience/chorus as they listen to the soloists I see the years drop from their faces and they look as they might have looked decades ago in the anticipation of Christmas morning. When they stand and sing the joy in their eyes is unmistakable. How does it happen? I'm sure that the genius of the music has something to do with it. During the three hours the venue where this takes place becomes a haven where you can forget the craziness of black Friday shopping, the resentments and disappointments of holidays past, the sorrow and strife that pervades the world. For this brief period those of us involved have our Scrooge personas drop away and somehow magically know what the words "spirit of Christmas" can sometimes conjure up.

So once every December I am reminded that things are not all that bad, that there are probably more good people than evil in the world and that "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."


Monday, December 5, 2011

Housing Market Follies

I'm sure that there is no one left in the United States that doesn't know that the housing market is in the crapper and circling the drain. There is no doubt whatsoever that the largest part of this situation was created by greedy, near criminal, irresponsible banking institutions and other financial corporations trading obscure derivatives on wall street like bubble gum cards with about as much real worth.

However, there is another smaller yet integral part of the puzzle that makes it nearly impossible to sell a house even if you have an willing buyer. That part is eagerly supplied by incompetent realtors, title companies, bankers (there they are again - what a coincidence) and small time swindlers. This will be a tale of a hypothetical situation (hypothetical to avoid any implied information about actual people who might be involved in such an actual collosal FUBAR).

The story begins when the matriach and patriach of Midwesthappyfamily passed away. Midwesthappyfamily then embarked on a series of marathon weekends where members of the family visited from several remote locations to clean out the house and prepare it for the auction of its contents in preparation for the sale of the house itself. Now imagine how easy these transactions would be if the following desired events were to occur.

1) Auctioneer takes charge of auction preparations per instructions from family, house contents are sold and house is ready for sale.
2) Realtor lists house and performs duties regarding communications of offers, counter offers, needed documents, etc.
3) Offer accepted
4) Bank sets up appraisal- appraisal is made.
5) Decision to make loan is made. If decision is no, return to #2.
6) Loan is okayed - closing date is set.
7) Title company performs title search.
8) All documents finalized.
9) House ownership changes hands at closing.
10) Buyer and seller go away happy.

Now let's examine how in our hypothetical case things go wrong.

1) Instead of auctioneering all items auctioneer forgets who he is working for and cherry picks what he wants to auction. The rest he leaves in the house after thoroughly trashing it. He also disables water to the house after breaking the water line when removing the refrigerator. All members of the family are authorized to remove any articles from auction prior to sale date. Auctioneer tries to deny granddaughter access to items previously designated for her. After auction takes place family is left with a massive clean up job and disposal problem with items auctioneer couldn't be bothered with. Proceeds from auction disappear mopping up unethical auctioneer's leavings.
2) Realtor does list house. Tells family she has cash offer. Family accepts cash offer for house "as is". Oops! Realtor now says it is not a cash offer but there should be no problem with the loan. Closing date set.
3)Bank appraiser doesn't show up on time, closing date postponed. Weeks go by.
7)Title company can't get title search done on time, closing date postponed again.

Now buyer who has not had "as is" explained by realtor wants mold inspection and more cleaning done. Family declines. Realtor completely clueless and gives family false and conflicting information during this period. Finally family demands a firm closing date and buyer claims this is "too much pressure" and backs out.
So it's back to step 2.

To skip all the feverish phone calls and urgent emails from family to the realtor with the realtor whining that "I've never had trouble like this before" let's move ahead to the offer which finally culminated in a sale. Once this offer has been accepted, the house appraised and the loan approved a closing date is set and the realtor tells family "we have all the documents we need, everything is all set".

By now the family realizes that this statement means that there are going to be problems ahead and sure enough one week before closing each member of the family receives a packet of forms from the title company by email with an instruction list on which members need to sign which documents and which ones need to be notarized. The instructions are so incomprehensible that the family requests revised instructions that can be understood by normal human beings. A new set of instructions arrives the next day with instructions that totally contradict the first set. Requests for better instructions result in being told to call the office so "we can walk you through it." This produces an explosion from the family threatening to withhold commission from the realtor for non-performance. Finally this produces crystal clear instructions and the forms are returned from locations scattered all over the continent barely in time for closing.

Finally after three months of blunders, false starts and stupidity the sale closes.

The point of this rather lengthy tale is to ask - Why does it have to be this difficult? Of course corollaries to this question include "Why can't people just do what they get paid for?" and "Why is it so hard to keep incompetent people out of critical positions?" In this case our hypothetical family had a realtor that had to be told what to do and what was expected at every step in the process and who gave false information on numerous occasions, an auctioneer that was a borderline confidence man, appraisers that couldn't manage their work load, one title company that couldn't meet a deadline and one title company that had at least one employee that couldn't write comprehensible English. These aren't volunteers, these are people who get paid to do what they so egregiously fail to do in a satisfactory manner.

The American economy is going down for the third time, and these are the people and thousands like them standing firmly in the way of recovery. Lets let incompetents do hard manual labor and get some intelligence into the places that make capitalism actually work shall we?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Corporate Befuddlement

Today I am sitting in front of a computer screen doing nothing productive at time and a half.

Basically I am being paid to be the human equivalent of a Prozac tablet. Huge code rollout for the software I use last night and today testing is going on on the west coast which started at 4 AM PST and will go on until every possible scenario is tested. What no one has bothered to figure out is that testing every possible scenario would take days. Bear in mind that before this code rollout went live testing on a duplicate of the live environment went on for six weeks. So would common sense not dictate that testing on the live environment only be necessary for each component to be called and not every possible combination? Of course it would. So I think we can safely assume that there is no common sense at work in this particularly dysfunctional corporate world. As the day wears on and the zombificated testers work on into the night will anyone realize that six weeks of testing cannot be duplicated in a single weekend? I'm not holding my breath.

What makes this particularly galling is that I have had to postpone a holiday vacation with my extended family by one day so that I can come into the office and stare at the wall. My presence here is needed because the company I work for practices management by fear. Since they hire middle management not for their knowledge of the work that will be done by their employees but by their longevity and ability to avoid offending anyone higher up the ladder. Thus IT departments find themselves run by people with no knowledge of the technology used by the employees they manage. Consequently on a day like today people are called to sit in their cubes and rot "just in case". In other words because management is terrified someone will ask them a question they cannot answer. For instance "Hey why aren't the names fitting in the fields on the form?" Instead of being able to say "Because the server monkeys didn't load the correct fonts." management needs galley slaves tied to their benches who can spit out the answer. Note that this does not require the galley slave to actually haul on the oars (touch any code) it merely requires them to provide an statement that any moderately functional member of the department considers common knowledge.

The system works perfectly. Not only does the manager not have to know what's going on, the system of mandated overtime (a characteristic I have always considered as indicative of a sweat shop) insures that the manager will never have to learn it. Thus the presence of the code jockeys in the cubes allays the fear that a manager might be exposed as knowing nothing about their department.

I give you one guess as to which industry can afford to waste money in this manner.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

..and a Tip of the Hat

So long Steve, the world would have been so different without you. Your vision made it a better place.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Testosterone in the Heartland

Iowa recently passed a law to allow dove hunting. This has stirred up a passel of heated invective back and forth in blogs, letters to editors and other opportunistic venues for spleen. It's not like Iowa good old boys have nothing to hunt, Iowa has enough deer to feed an army of Daniel Boones to the point where they are referred to as "giant rats" because of the damage they do to the environment, gardens, grain storage and the like. There are seasons for pheasant, turkey, quail, rabbit, squirrel, grouse and deer in Iowa not to mention trapping for beaver, otter and bobcat. But this is not enough and the call went out from the mighty men of reknown that they needed a season to hung the mourning dove, an inoffensive little bird slightly bigger than a robin.

For the moment let's forget the fact that these "conservationists" (all avid hunters will try to convince you that only if they are allowed to kill anything that moves can our environment be saved - I have some difficulty with this but maybe I am just being dense) also lobbied mightily not to have their fun spoiled by requiring them to use steel shot thus saving the environment from the hazards of lead pellets.

In a letter to the local rag laughingly referred to as an actual newspaper, a letter was published expressing dismay that people felt the need to kill these birds. I added a comment saying "It takes a big brave man to kill a mourning dove." I suppose I should have known better. The rag in question used to allow sign in with an anonymous screen name (backed by their records regarding email address) but recently changed it to allowing only facebook login. Since I feel that I have nothing to hide I posted my comment under my facebook (real) name and today my comment was answered by one who thoroughly researched my facebook, my website and my blog to comment to all and sundry that this "computer geek who plays bassoon and likes opera and classical music knows nothing about bravery." The conversation went back and forth with his invective building as I posted replies flying way over his head. Finally I told him "you win - I admit that it DOES take a big brave man to kill a mourning dove." That the sarcasm of the last reply was even heavier than the original that started his diatribe completely escaped him. Nevertheless, I now have a gun toting "big brave man" out there somewhere that knows who I am and what city I live in. Now I have to start looking over my shoulder.

I've dealt with guys like this ever since I got my first pair of glasses in fourth grade. In grade school I was beaten regularly for being smaller and "geekier" than the neckless boys would like. When I suddenly got large in high school similar attempts ended in big surprises. I guess that intellectually I knew that the bullies are still out there - big when they are "carrying" but still cowards at heart. It does not surprise me that those that feel that they need to own a gun and kill things for amusement are largely of this ilk.

The sad part is that I, who have never owned a firearm, now feel I may need one to protect me from someone who feels threatened because I questioned his need to shoot small birds.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

New Frontiers in Stupidity

We've dealt with stupidity before in these pages, particularly stupidity as it presents itself in the midwest from the belief that you can turn in any direction from any traffic lane to the belief that the number of times the floor buttons are pressed in an elevator determines how many people can get off at a given floor but new examples of new depths of stupidity appear almost daily.

For now we won't belabor the point that the Iowa straw poll indicates that a majority of Iowa republicans are just fine with someone obviously mentally challenged being president of the United States. If this opinion holds across the country then God help us all. Enough said on that topic.

The very latest example of human beings that function at or below the animal level involves children falling out of windows. This summer an epidemic of this has broken out in Des Moines. Every few days on the news we hear that a toddler has fallen from a second story or higher window. Setting aside how this points out that not every human being with working genital organs should be allowed to reproduce, the really mind boggling part is the response of the community. Des Moines is now setting up classes for parents on how to prevent children from falling out of windows. Yes, that's right, you didn't misunderstand - actual classes to teach presumably adult people how not to let their kids take the concrete plunge. What's the curriculum going to be? 101 - Proper use of screens? 102 - Windows, once opened, may be closed - a hands on approach? 103 - Putting down the crack pipe to watch the child - a survey of techniques?

The talking heads on the news seem to be soliciting sympathy for the parents. Sympathy my wrinkled ass! As corrupt and inefficient as Child and Family Services is, seize any kids belonging to these troglodytes and clap mom and dad (if dad is even around) in the slammer until child bearing age is past. The coddling of idiots in our society has got to cease.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Music Therapy

It had been a long tedious work day. Expiring deadlines coupled with unreasonable requests for last minute changes. Members of other departments calling for help rather than solving problems on their own. The ongoing process of new and exciting software bugs appearing requiring fruitless hours of troubleshooting. I was tired. Maybe not physically but certainly mentally fatigued. When I got home the last thing I wanted to do was go out again and exert any effort whatsoever.

But we had a double reed quartet rehearsal scheduled. After a quick frozen pizza refueling (frozen pizza hardly qualifying as food but simply fodder) I packed up the bassoon case, grabbed a stand and crawled into the car. My wife, in much better spirits than I, loaded her oboe and english horn and we headed for the interstate and a thirty minute drive to our second bassoonist's house.

Our double reed quartet is a fledgling effort, as yet gigless and still in search of coherence. We'd not met since the end of our orchestra season in May and I was hoping to make it through the evening with little heavy lifting. All four of us play in the same orchestra. The thirty something accountant second oboe with the blazing technique and amazing sight reading, the mid twenties band teacher second bassoon starting her family and my wife and myself, both of the latter of another generation.

The four of us are good friends and as we assembled instruments and fussed with reeds we caught up with each other. Second oboe was back from a weekend country music festival - wife and I had tales of horrible and amazing experiences playing for a community musical. As we began to rehearse we kept it light playing several tangos, a Gottschalk dance and a Csardas and as we played some of the things that keeps guys like me playing began to happen. When a group like this is formed there is a period when everyone may be playing their parts but the real ensemble, the "oneness" that is the goal of fine performance only comes with time, with familiarity with the other players and learning to feel what the other players will do, how they will form their expression and nuance almost before they do it. And finally, last night after three years of sporadic rehearsals searching for repertoire and a voice as a group, it began to happen. We began to sense how this player would interpret this phrase, that ritard. How two of us should articulate a passage together. How we begin to transcend the written dynamics and shape the rise and fall together. As the two hours came to an end we worked on a Bach prelude and finally for a brief moment we four became one voice - the voice of an organ - the whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

Driving home I was no longer tired. My wife and I didn't speak much - we have been together long enough that we didn't need to. This is why we keep doing it. Because sometimes, sometimes the magic happens.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Watching the sun set on my country.

Having spent the last ten years with my jaw constantly dropping at the machinations of the republican party (yes, grammar police I know it should be capitalized but I refuse to grant even this tiniest morsel of respect) I think I have finally figured out their game plan. As we all know, half the people you meet are below average intelligence and the average has been on a major slide since the late 19th century. As a result of these facts, in the United States of America the vast majority of the population is stupid. Republicans have obviously realized that this is their voter base for the future. If they can just train them to get out of the house, stumble to the polls and read enough of the ballot to vote, they can't lose. How else can you explain the fact that Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin, to name only two, are actually considered viable candidates for the presidency? And really, can you blame the republicans for grabbing this opportunity? You can twist history any way you want - none of your target constituency has any knowledge of it anyway. You can make up statistics, you can lie, you can proclaim family values while divorcing your cancer ridden wife since none of your target audience reads anything deeper than the TV listings and anything negative on the news must be the product of those damn commie liberals. Just hate women, minorities, proclaim your love for Jebus and the mouth breathing shamblers will gather like flies above fresh horse flop.

It's really no news to me that stupid is our country's new direction. I shouldn't be surprised when I see how our government at every level in the midst of a financial crisis refuses to eliminate waste caused by idiotic decisions. For example, how much good can be done for our country at home if our solution to everything in the world that irritates us is to try to bomb it out of existence? How many lives would be saved if instead of putting gruesome pictures on cigarette packages we just stopped subsidizing tobacco growers and manufacturers? How many future depressions or recessions could be avoided if bankers and Wall Street financiers were actually punished for swindling the American public? How much money could be saved and how many lives changed if we stopped pretending that locking up people for 20 years for possession of a roach and funding a completely failed "war on drugs" was having any effect whatsoever? I could go on for pages, and I'm sure anyone intelligent enough to read this blog could put up a long list of their own.

Sadly, I no longer believe that there are enough of us left to stop this slide into the kind of country we always tried to protect ourselves from in the years after World War II. I no longer believe that there are enough intelligent people willing to serve in a government that is paralyzed by partisanship and stupidity, not to mention horrible abuses of position such as attempts to sell Senate seats, molestation of aides and interns, flaunting of complete disregard for morals and ethics and ownership of members of congress by corporate interests which is not concealed nor denied. I've reached an age where I know I won't live long enough to see the full descent into the disappearance of the middle class and the division of the country into a huge poverty class toiling and supporting a tiny class of robber barons but I really see no way short of revolution out of it. Perhaps even my children will not see the ultimate result, but I fear for my grandchildren and all of their generation.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Grass wars

Spring has arrived in Iowa in it's usual abrupt way. Furnace running full blast one day, 90 degree temperatures the next. Each year when this precursor to a summer of devastating soul sucking heat and humidity arrives the wife and I start our annual attempt to grow grass.

Ten years ago when we bought our house our feelings were "Wow - look at the huge oak trees in the front and back yard". Now it is more like "These damn oak trees!" The trees in question are huge pin oaks probably in the neighborhood of eighty plus years old in excess of 6 feet in diameter and fifty feet tall. The trees are so large that when you view our address on Google Earth pictures taken in summer show our entire yard, parts of the house and parts of neighbors' yards completely obscured by foliage. They look impressive when leafed out as they were when we bought the place, but during the year they drop amazing amounts of dead wood during windy conditions - limbs ranging in size from the thickness of a thumb to that of my thigh; carpet our driveway, lawn and sidewalk with a solid layer of acorns in the fall; and drop leaves for two months that amount to at least forty-five thirty gallon bags full mulched and tamped down. And in addition to providing us with a year round opportunity for yard clean up they inhibit the grass.

One of the first things we noticed when we moved in was that the lawn both front and back had bare patches ranging in size from three inches to two feet in diameter. The lady next door told us the prior owners had used a lawn service but had always had the problem. Thus began a ten year battle to grow grass where grass will not grow. At first I believed as others may that the trees were taking all the nutrients and water so lots of fertilizer and regular watering were applied to no avail.

Over the years we subsequently have tried:

Seasonal application of weed and feed type fertilizers: These seem to inhibit dandelions but let Creeping Charlie, Virginia Creeper and crabgrass run wild. As to the "feed" part, there has been no discernible affect on the grass.

Zoysia Grass: This comes in "plugs" which you space at one foot intervals over bare patches. It grows only in places where there is full blinding sunlight at least nine hours a day with no hint of shade. In the fall it turns yellow and remains yellow until well into late spring when it finally turns green. To be fair, where it will grow it grows thick and lush. We now have a patch approximately two feet by three feet in the extreme south east corner of our front lawn after an attempt at four hundred square feet of coverage nine years ago.

Conventional sun/shade grass seed mix: Yeah, I know we have no sun - we hoped the shade part would work out. Raked in and watered religiously it sprouted sparsely to a height of about one inch and promptly died. Didn't even get to mow it once. We actually tried this three times varying the time of planting, the amount of mulching and depth of planting. We learn hard.

Bugle weed: ground cover specifically for shady areas. Hoping this would just take over and we could forget grass. Bought enough plants last year to cover a one hundred square foot area. This spring not a single plant survived.

Canadian "miracle grass": guaranteed to grow in shade or sun - will germinate in five days. It did indeed germinate in five days and then died off in three weeks.

This spring is our last hurrah. After a winter of research we bought seed consisting mainly of fescues (supposedly the ultimate shade grasses). Fescues aren't for high traffic areas but most of the traffic in the back yard is sporadic and largely composed of small dachshund paws. Right now, seeding after tilling manure and compost into around two hundred square feet of test area we have a pretty fair stand of grass around two inches tall. However in the seeded areas there are still patches from two to four inches in diameter where the seed did not germinate. If this planting survives, next spring the remaining problem areas get the same treatment, but pardon me if I'm skeptical. If, on the other hand it fails like all the rest I wonder how hard it will be to convince the wife that green asphalt is a good idea?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Last summer my 91 year old parents passed away within 3 months of each other. Since then my sisters and I have been traveling back to the small town we grew up in to finalize the preparations for an estate auction and eventual sale of the house. The three of us are scattered across the country and gathering to complete this project involves considerable planning and expense. This week we'll make the third and hopefully final such trip. The longer this takes - it has been seven months since Dad died - the longer it takes for closure as the emotional wounds are to some extent reawakened on each visit.

Mom and Dad lived in this house in this little farming town for 65 years from the time Dad returned from Europe at the end of World War II. They remodeled the house in 1955, expanding the capacity for three children and belongings. During that period of time the storage areas of the house were leveraged to the maximum and they threw little away of records and memories of their lives together. Photographs that date back to the late nineteenth century were carefully stored in boxes when the sheer quantity overwhelmed the efforts to contain them all in albums. Records of expenses and purchases were meticulously filed never to be retrieved; receipts for car repairs on vehicles long since passed from all but vaguest memory, warranty information on household appliances replaced many times over, copies of letters to vendors and manufacturers seeking repairs or refunds for items now many years consigned to landfills, and newspaper clippings, report cards and piles of notebook paper filled with childish scrawls chronicling the passage of the three of us through our years of schooling.

What to do with all these things? We continue to return to the house and sort through items that in reality could be handed over to the auctioneers to separate into disposables and salables as if the continued attention to this process somehow suspends the finality of events that have already taken place. So many things. Things which each meant something to one or both of our parents and now must be disposed of. For myself I need little materially to remember them but for my sisters letting go seems to be more difficult. To dispose of their possessions seems disturbingly to discount their importance to those who chose to save them. Yet we all accumulate our own life's collection of memory's touchstones. I cannot find it in me to haul boxes of remembrances home to store them away and pass the task on to the next generation.

And yet - if we pronounce the job finished - then we must face the fact that this time when we close the door we close the door also on the beginning, the middle and the beginning of the end of our lives. The blessing we had of all these years of an intact family meeting for holidays in the family home is over. As these things pass through our hands, the minutia of a couple who spent sixty-nine years together and raised three children, and we realize that most of these things are ephemera that must be relinquished to mere memories we are acutely aware of our own mortality. We hold items in our hands whose only value is emotional and remember how as children our lives seemed to stretch on infinitely and now seem all too short.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Midwest Mediocrities

This week's exasperations revolve around the orchestra I play in. It's a major crapfest and a lengthy explanation. Proceed at your own risk.

As you may recall this is a "community" orchestra meaning there's no pay - there's not enough money in Insurance City to support more than one paying orchestra so the surplus musicians band together to thumb their noses at midwest mediocrity by giving free concerts. This year a somewhat misguided decision was made to provide live music for the city ballet corps. Whether a semi-professional ballet company can survive here is problematical, but some new blood has been brought in to try to pump life into the previously hit and miss amateur group. The result of this collaboration has been a series of bumbling mishaps as the current production lumbers like Karloff in Frankenstein toward the performances.

The first near disaster for the orchestra involved obtaining the music. The selected ballet was choreographed to a hodge podge of twentieth century European compositions. In a classic cart before the horse maneuver, the orchestra committed to the performance having no knowledge of what it would take to obtain the music and how much it would cost. (It seems that the previously performances used recorded music and to hell with rights and royalties.) Music that is still in copyright and is used for ballet requires the acquisition of "grand rights", a "gotcha" section of the copyright law that allows music rental companies and copyright holders to deliver a huge kick in the gonads to the bank accounts of the performing organization. The cost of obtaining the music for this performance thus ends up costing five times what our regular concert music rentals cost. Yeah - we'll just ask our wealthy patrons to cough up more cash - you know, the people who attend our concerts because they can't afford tickets to the pro group in town.

Problem two with the music rental is obtaining music from Russia. Combine a fog dwelling rental agent in New York with recalcitrant heirs of the Shostakovich estate in Russia and we wind up getting most of the music for Act III one week before the final rehearsals with the ballet. Can you say "fake it and hope for the best"? I knew that you could.

The music itself is dauntingly difficult. The music is unfamiliar enough that some of it was only known to our conductor from listening to a CD. Estimating the difficulty of music without the score in front of you is risky to say the least. In an organization like ours we have a wildly divergent array of abilities and most of the top quality string players in town have been absorbed into the pro group. While there are moments of adequacy within the slings and arrows of the scores, for much of the time the rendition of the faster string passages is - to be kind - chaotic.

But enough about the music. Here we have a ballet corps trying to make a big impression as a newly vitalized group, they want big crowds, they want four nights of rehearsal with the orchestra and two performances on a Saturday. So when do they schedule the performances? The week of the high school state wrestling tournament with the performances on the day of the finals! Now in a civilized state located more toward the easterly part of the continent this might cause many to say "so what?" but in corn country high school tournaments attract crowds only rivaled by visits of the Pope to Central America. And in this state wrestling is HUGE. So all during rehearsals and particularly during the performances finding a place to park within walking distance of the Civic Center becomes challenging. Ballet vs. wrestling in this town? Ballet is going to take a beating.

So last night we enter the Civic Center for our first round of rehearsal with the dancers. Rehearsal scheduled 5:30 to 9:30. Are you KIDDING me? Volunteer orchestra you egotistical dance twerps. That means everyone has a day job. Sorry, I'm not taking time off from my job that I might use later in some leisure activity of my own choosing to accommodate this insane schedule. Yeah, and feel free to abuse volunteer musicians. If you were dealing with union musicians they would laugh at a four hour rehearsal with visions of dollar signs dancing in their wee little heads.

Conditions in the multi million dollar civic center are eye opening. Getting to the orchestra pit requires negotiating a formidable concrete staircase. For the young and fit no problem. For some of the elderly instrumentalists this is a major obstacle. No, there is no elevator. The pit itself lives up to its name. It looks like the janitor's room in my high school. Pipes and electrical conduit festoon the ceiling and walls. The black paint has not been renewed since the center opened in 1979. The web site for the center says the pit accommodates 50 musicians. The word "accommodate" seems to mean "will hold 50 musicians if arranged as in a Japanese subway car". Playing with someone's elbow in your ribs can offer a unique challenge.

Through the evening surprises abound. The center supplies a CD player for the playing of sound effects. No one in the building, including the crew demanded by the union, can figure out how to make it work. Constant tinkering finally makes it available for the last fifteen minutes of the rehearsal. One entire bank of stand lights in the pit flicker and fail completely from time to time leaving the players concerned either dropping out or improvising with varying degrees of success. Pleas to the house crew have no effect.

Professional ballet company? Sorry gang, but you are several reality checks short. Better luck in the future.

Professional venue? I've played in professional venues and Civic center - you are no professional venue.

Two more nights of rehearsal followed by two "anything can happen" performances. I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Technology Fear

I work in an IT capacity for a large financial company. Specifically I write and troubleshoot software as well as training new developers using a proprietary programming language specifically designed for document production and maintenance . We've had this application in place for over six years during which time my department has gradually taken on documents for a variety of business units that formerly had their documents produced and maintained by third party vendors. When you produce many thousands of documents a month, having a third party vendor involved gets enormously expensive. One such vendor recently raised their price to one dollar a document. When a single business unit can easily generate in excess of 30,000 documents a month, dealing with dozens of different business units on a company wide scale gets expensive fast. Naturally the motivation to move these services in house is strong and we add several units a year to those serviced by our department.

With this kind of incentive and a six year track record of producing thousands of accurate documents day after day when an incorrect document has very negative legal consequences you would think that once the decision has been made to move another business unit's documents in house this decision would be embraced by those who stand to benefit most by it. Namely those employees who have had to wrestle with the demands and deadlines of the third party vendors. But not so! These employees, which now need to provide my department with specifications and assistance in saving their department piles of money annually, inevitably dig in their heels and give their assistance only grudgingly and half-heartedly. Some of this is expected because long time employees approaching retirement age grouse that "we've always done it this way and it works, we don't see why we have to learn to do it a new way" and people are just naturally resistant to change. However, the largest component in this resistance, in spite of the fact that computers have been involved in business applications since the sixties, and personal computers since the eighties, is technology fear.

Technology fear should not be confused with technology ignorance. Technology ignorance is responsible for calls to the help desk such as "my cup holder is broken" referring to the CD drawer or "My computer won't turn on" when the electricity in the building is off. These people are perfectly willing to work with new technology and just need a little generalized training. Either that or their IQ is not sufficient for their position (a situation that sadly is becoming more and more prevalent as American education continues the ongoing process of dumbing itself down). Also, technology fear should not be confused with compartmentalization. My wife works for a university where her job requires fairly advanced skills using Excel and Access yet she needs help figuring out how to chat on Facebook. She's not afraid of technology, she just sees no reason to explore applications beyond her immediate need. Instead technology fear is a combination of Arthur C. Clarke's pronouncement that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." and "oh my God what if something goes wrong?" In the first case the fear is that if all things are not in some mystical configuration the technology in question will immediately cease to function. Thus adding a new business unit to a functioning system must be accompanied by great trepidation and perhaps appeasement of some sort. In the second the fear is that should a malfunction occur there will be no one that can fix it. It puzzles me that these same individuals have no qualms in purchasing a new car and expecting it to work reliably when they have no more understanding of how it works than they do the technology that they fear.

It would be easy to dismiss these individuals if they did not present such an enormous cost in time to implement any proposed project. In a large company interested parties in a new project can be widely distributed geographically and a new project demands numerous meetings in the form of conference calls to get all systems involved to coordinate the changes necessary for implementation. This results in conference calls with up to thirty people wasting company time while questions like the following are fielded:

What happens if we can't print our document? (what happens when you can't print an email from Aunt Tillie? You call help desk.)
What happens if there is a power failure? (on your end - you quit working. On our end - the same fail-over plan that the company has used for 10 years applies.)
What happens if the home office is closed?(the servers run 24 hours a day - always have, always will)
Will there be training? (this is particularly annoying when everyone knows that the change will be transparent to the user)
How will we know what icon to click? (same as above. I'm not making these questions up.)
Will the documents fit on our printers? (no, we plan to make them billboard sized)
How do we know the documents are correct? (ever heard of QA testing? We have several hundred people company wide involved in this.)

I am sure you can get the drift by now. What is particularly galling is that the people on these calls asking these questions are invariably middle to upper management who must have an answer before we can proceed. Even more galling is that they ask the same questions on call after call as if expecting the answer to change. The goal of the endless questioning seems to be to postpone putting off any decision making so no one can be held responsible if something goes wrong. On the last call of this nature I was on, the project manager, having waded determinedly through the morass of mindless queries, finally reached a point where he could ask "So who is in favor of moving ahead with what was proposed." Of thirty people on the call, not a sound was heard. The PM then asked "OK so who has objections to moving ahead with the proposal." Again crickets. The entire meeting was paralyzed by fear.

I'm sure glad I have a desk large enough to allow room for head banging.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Eye Surgery Processing - A Poke in the Eye Part 2

Disclaimer: These two posts aren't necessarily meant to be either a rant or humorous (and maybe none of my others are either in spite of intention). Wikipedia states: "In the United States, age-related lenticular changes have been reported in 42% of those between the ages of 52 to 64, 60% of those between the ages 65 and 74, and 91% of those between the ages of 75 and 85." If you manage to live to the age of 52 or better, the chances of your dealing with this problem are better than even. And since age-related cataract is responsible for 48% of world blindness you do definitely want to deal with it. So this topic is by way of alleviating a little stress for anyone facing this in the future.

And now, on with the narrative.

The presurgical physical not having revealed any contraindications I dutifully showed up at the out patient surgical center at the appointed time. Here's where the process could use some improvement. Very like airlines, the outpatient center had me show up two hours early. During that two hours they verified my personal and insurance information (10 minutes) and did a minimal surgical prep (20 minutes). For the other hour and a half I sat around and waited. This is akin to airline practices except there's no stop and grope at the entrance. I don't have a clue why it takes 30 minutes to get you processed and yet you have a 1 1/2 hour wait beyond that. I'm not sure about anyone else, but during this period the thought that someone would soon be shoving a sharp instrument into my eye got my adrenaline going pretty good. After 1/2 hour in the waiting room post sign-in ritual, when I was called back to sit in the little room with the curtain and have my vitals checked, the nurse remarked that my blood pressure was up a bit. You think?! Then I got into a surgical gown (allowed to retain trou but no shirt) an IV started, many eye drops administered and settled in to wait for another hour.

Whenever I'm on the receiving end of an IV I always wonder how people that do this many times a day, day after day for months, maybe years, can still be inept at it. I have great ropy veins that you can see from across the room with one eye closed, yet on this occasion the nurse might as well have been using a 3 penny nail to get the IV going. There was pushing, twisting, withdrawal and skewering before she was finally satisfied. To my credit, although there was tooth grinding and white knuckling of the gurney rails, I managed to refrain from any imprecations or violence. In the aftermath of the entire process the next day the most annoying after effect was a big irritated bruise at the IV site. Yet a week later on the visit for the other eye, I was looking the other way and didn't even notice when a different nurse got the IV on the first try. Different people have differing skills. Let the nurse that has trouble starting IVs specialize in taking histories or something else with no pain potential.

During the hour of waiting I was visited by the surgical nurse, the anesthetist, the anesthetist's assistant and the surgeon. They all looked at my chart and then asked me which eye we were supposed to be doing. Every one of them asked that - and then the surgeon took a marker and scrawled his initials above the right (not left) eye - which was also the right (correct) eye. In my presurgical anxiety state this made me think that they would not take so much time verifying this if at some time someone had in fact performed a procedure on the incorrect eye. A sobering thought. And while we're on the subject of presurgical anxiety, I've got an IV in my arm, how about a few milligrams of valium or something to keep me from pondering everything that could possibly go wrong?

But finally the surgical nurse came for me and I went shuffling down the hall in my paper booties with my IV stand. Once in the operating room the lethargy of the last 2 hours suddenly turned to practiced efficiency. Up on the table, warm blanket applied, arms strapped down (people sometimes involuntarily try to protect their eyes while under anesthesia), EKG monitors leads applied, head taped securely in place and as I feel the onset of warm fuzzies I realize the anesthetic has been administered. Soon I am aware of some activity taking place near my eyes and realize that I am going to be awake for this. Then I realize that I don't care. Next thing I know I can feel some slight pressure in the general area of my eye. Again I don't care. Whatever this anesthetic is, it's very effective in keeping me relaxed and motionless. The combination of the topical anesthetic in the eye drops and whatever is administered by IV combine to keep me perfectly comfortable and relaxed. After reading up on the procedure I realize that a lot is going on up there but subjectively it seems to be over in minutes and soon a perforated metal shield is placed over my eye, I am helped into a wheel chair and rolled out into the recovery area. Half an hour later I am being driven home by my wife who tells me I was in the OR about 30 minutes. I have a minor headache over the eye later but a couple of Ibuprofen knock that right out.

The next day I return to the center for a follow up. The surgeon looks into my eye, pronounces it doing well, I am relieved of the eye shield and given directions for anti-inflammatory and antiseptic eyedrops for the next two weeks and told to wear the eye shield at night for the next week and sent home. The following week, after a check up with my regular opthamologist the procedure is repeated on the other eye with much less anxiety now that I know how simple it is. Three weeks later I get my new glasses that tweak my astigmatism and provide close vision correction and I see better than I have in years. In fact my distance vision without glasses, although not perfect, is now better than it was with glasses prior to the procedures.

As with any surgical procedure, complications are possible but I had no complicating factors like glaucoma, my surgeon has a national reputation and has himself developed several advanced procedures and the staff and facility of the out patient surgical center were top quality. In the future there is the possibility that the rear of the lens capsule could become somewhat opaque but this is correctible by laser.

Every once in a while everything comes together and works out right. This was one of those times. Considering that most of my life is filled with annoyances of one kind or another, I felt this experience was worth retelling.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

More Des Moines Shenanigans

I know the second installment of the cataract adventure is due, but I need to vent. Live with it.

rant mode on/

The latest demonstration of complete fail by the Des Moines city administration has to do with snow removal. As I've mentioned elsewhere Des Moines has a long standing tradition of never starting to clear the residential streets until the end of a storm. Considering that snow storms that last for several days are not uncommon this creates ridiculously difficult conditions for residents who simply want to get to work. Complaints to the street department always result in a litany of propaganda insisting that all major streets are cleared every morning of a storm in time for the rush hour. This is completely untrue as the morning rush hour after a storm is always characterized by commuters wallowing through piles of unplowed snow, sometimes actually above their bumpers.

This year, in a new propaganda campaign, the city designated several areas within the city "snow ordinance areas". What this means is that during a storm in these residential areas, residents may not park their cars on the street until snow removal is complete. According to information available on the city government web site snow removal on "snow routes" will be complete within 24 to 36 hours after the storm and residential streets 36 hours later. So home owners and other taxpayers may not park on the streets for a minimum of 72 hours. (Bear in mind that these are the city's figures and the clearing of residential streets within 72 hours after a storm is a wildly optimistic figure rarely achieved.) To add insult to injury there is a city ordinance that residents must clear their sidewalks within 48 hours after a storm - thus requiring the resident to be more efficient than the city street department.

Snow ordinance areas were newly instituted in December and after our first snowfall hundreds of tickets were issued to motorists who dared to park their cars on the street having nowhere else to park them (they could pull them up into their yard if another ordinance with a higher fine did not prohibit that). Des Moines was very diligent in issuing the tickets as police had to drive through snow choked streets to issue them. Naturally a huge outcry from the populace arose following this deluge of penalties and the result was a media blitz intended to sooth irate townspeople by telling them how refraining from parking on the designated streets during a storm would result in faster snow removal. News anchors were actually able to deliver this information with a straight face.

So now we have had our first major snow storm and are into the second 24 hours of continuous snowfall. Of course the residential streets in the snow ordinance areas remain untouched and the only evidence of plowing is on state routes and major highways. As one slides through the piles of snow on the way to work street department trucks are occasionally seen with their blades up and their sand/salt spreaders inactive. Having lived in several other cities in my life, some in areas with much more annual snowfall than Des Moines, I would expect denizens of Des Moines to descend on city hall if not with pitchforks at least with irate demands for some improved return on their inordinately high property taxes. I remember a snowfall some years back where the tardy clearing of streets in Chicago resulted in the ouster of the mayor. Not so in Des Moines. I'm not sure whether the populace of Des Moines believes the BS that the spokespeople for the city are so skilled at disseminating or whether they think that this is the way it is everywhere. Certainly the latter is possible as Iowa is a very insular state with few outsiders immigrating from other states and few inhabitants venturing beyond Iowa's borders to return with tales of far off climes like Colorado where they actually know how to remove snow in a timely manner.

Whatever the case - Des Moines Street Department, you are inefficient, unrepentant, incompetent and hypocritical. Snow ordinance my lily white ass, smoke screen is more like it.

/ end rant

Thanks for reading.