Sunday, June 26, 2016

Maybe We Should Just Give it a Whack

I had an issue that I was beginning to think would never get solved taken care of on Friday last week.  It caused a tiny seed of hope to sprout inside me.  
The scanners in the department I run have been pretty much inoperable for the past month.  They were old.  They’d lost their licenses.  They needed to be replaced.  The brand new machines we bought to replace them refused to work.  
To make it clear, I run a production department for the records division of a legal support services company.  We get four to five hundred sets of documents every day I need to make sure are scanned and processed and sent to attorneys that are our clients so they can use them as evidence in their cases.  Having scanners that didn’t work properly was seriously putting a crimp in our process.  
After literally weeks of technicians play tag-team with my IT department, they finally brought out the “main guy” when it came to the scanners we were trying to install.  
I knew this “main guy.”  He’d come to install our scanners when we first got them years ago.  They’d worked fine up until the time they became too old to license again.  I had wondered why they hadn’t called him in the first place.  
It took him a few hours, but Mr. Main Guy found out what the problem was.  The new machines were running version 5.43 of their Administrative software.  The difference with version 5.1, which we were running before, is that 5.43 acts more like a server than a background application.  It means you have to restart the Admin panel after making any changes to the settings to set them in.  
That was it.  Mr. Main Guy, and I call him “Mister” with every bit of respect I can muster, had all the scanners re-calibrated and talking to each other, and even put in the settings we wanted for all the different paper sizes we scan without being asked to do so. Problem solved.  
It was then that I noticed that I was experiencing this weird yet not entirely unfamiliar feeling.  It was...  Good, this feeling.  It was...  Hope.  
Yeah.  Hope.  The scanners were one of several problems I’d been dealing with recently.  Each one dragging on and on and on as if they had become the new normal.  But now that problem with the scanners were solved that meant I didn’t have to spend any more time on it. AND, the time I’d spent on the scanners could now be spent on one of the other issues I had to deal with.  And if the scanners could be solved, then...  Didn’t that mean that...  The other problems could...  Also be...  Resolved.  Eventually.  
Woah.  That’s how I felt.  “Woah.”  I began thinking of things I could do to fix my other issues.  I began to plan on how I would take care of them.  I began envisioning the day when the problems were all solved and I could start running the unit the way it was supposed to run.  The way it had run before these problems leapt out fromt he shadows at me.  
There are a lot of things going screwy in the world these days.  The U.K.’s Brexit is only the most recent.  But there seems to be a trend of problems just popping out of the woodwork. Some because people seem inclined toward losing their minds and forgetting where they lost them.  Some because things neglected going bad.  And some because the methods being used to fix them aren’t doing anything at all, because the steps are for a previous version of the situation.  
My experience is telling me that maybe, just a slight possibility now, the root to these problems are because were doing things a bit wrong.  Taking steps that worked for the previous version of the situation we’re dealing with, but have no impact on the current situation.  
This is just a thought. One which I intend on exploring.  That it’s not a huge, powerful shove or push in the same direction we need to make.  That maybe just a little nudge, a tiny push in the right direction, or a small, mindful change of our attitudes, might make the difference we’re trying to find.  
It reminds me of a story I heard years ago.  A building in Chicago, in the middle of a heat wave, had it’s air conditioning unit shut down.  The building was sweltering.  Nothing they did to the unit, was dated back several decades when the building was first erected, restored it to working order.  
It was then someone remembered that the man that used to maintain the unit still lived in the city after his retirement.  They found his number.  They called him.  He agreed to come out.  
When he arrived he listened to what the current staff were facing.  He nodded and said he knew what needed to be done.  He lead them to the lowest basement level.  He squeezed himself into a gap between two of the units.  It was too cramped for anyone else to fall.  
Then, from deep inside the machinery, the waiting maintenance staff and worried members from management hear three sharp “Whacks.”  The machine suddenly roarted to life. Cool air could be felt spewing from the air vents.  
The former maintenance man came out, shook their hands and told them he’d send them a bill.  They got it two days later.  It was made out for $1,515.00.  It was had two line items. 
Three “whacks” @ $5.00 ea. = $15.00.
Knowing where to whack = $1,500.  

I’m going to spend more time trying to figure out where to whack.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Expressing a Bias for Hard Data over Common Sense

My usual routine on Sunday morning is to get up, get my laundry started, eat some breakfast, get some writing done while the clothes are being run through the dryer and watch my Sunday morning news shows.  
Last week was no different up until the time I turned on the TV and saw that the normal programming was interrupted by what had happened in Orlando.  I thought it would only last through the first hour of programming, but they kept following the story.   All of the news channels.  
I was a bit disappointed.  I wanted to hear of what Donald Trump had said the week before had finally been enough to bust the seams on that seemingly unsinkable political ship he’d been sailing.  When it became clear that this was the story of the day, I began rewriting the script to shape it into something that could be turned into a movie script.  What if this guy was just a distraction for a bigger target?  What if he had booby traps set for when the police came in?  When I heard an interview with a neighbor, who said she had seen the killer in the company of some gay men that lived in the same building, I thought, “That’s it!”  The guy, whose martial troubles had already been covered by the anchor, was sexually conflicted.  He’d fallen in with his gay neighbors and “something” happened to make him react with, “No!  No!  I’m NOT gay!  And I’ll prove it...!”  Which lead to his plan to enact revenge on innocent people for his own confusion.  
It wasn’t until the mother of someone who was missing, who had come down to the club where the attack had taken place to see if she could find some indication if he was alive or not, that I awoke to what I was doing.  Or, more accurately, not doing.  It was while she was telling the anchor about her soon, getting out bits and pieces of his life between her sobs and gasps, that I found myself critiquing her presentation.  Figuring out how it could be presented more meaningfully, how it could have greater impact if used as a scene in a movie.
I stopped myself as the news anchor started his attempt to soothe her, telling her that he felt her pain and sense of loss and offered his hope that she would find her beloved son safe and sound.  As I listened to him offer his condolences, I make the discovery that I had none inside of me to give. 
I was listening and reacting to the breaking news about the events in Orlando as something that happened.  Something that just happens now and then.  Fifteen times in the last eight years, if President’s Obama’s count, which he gave in his reaction to the news, is accurate.  
I had become inured to the idea of someone in this country shooting a bunch of other someones for some reason that was important only to him.  Like hearing that a bunch of people died in a chain-reaction traffic collision, or in a tornado or an earthquake, it was something that just happened.  
I learned a term years ago sometime after I graduated from college.  “An acceptable level of violence.”  I heard it reference to the troubles that were happening in Northern Ireland.  It describes a situation where, despite the bombings and killings and terrorist acts taking place, normal society finds a way to carry on.  Business is conducted.  People go about their daily lives.  The deaths are there, in the back of their minds, and while that awareness fosters some caution and change of habits to account for it, it doesn’t stop people from going about their daily lives.  
Every year, we have about 30,000 people who die from firearms from all causes, suicides, accidents and crimes.  About the same number of people die in traffic accidents each year.  In a country with a population of about 300 million, this is a fraction of a percentage, even when combined.  
There is, of course, a distinction.  Cars, which have all sorts of laws governing who can use them and how they can be used, are devices that are dangerous when used improperly or illegally.  Guns are tools that are dangerous when used in the manner intended, and even more deadly when used in illegal or improper manners.  
The reason why I came to this mindset of regarding something so terrible and horrific for those involved as “something that happens,” is because there doesn’t seem anything being done to correct it.  I remember thinking during the New Town shooting, where twenty six people were killed, mostly elementary school children, that this had to be a tipping point.  Kids were murdered.  Innocent children.  Surely, this would move people enough to “do something” that would make a difference.  
It didn’t.  Nothing has changed since then.  The same arguments, the same proposals have been floated out there.  More stringent background checks.  Banning certain types of weapons and magazines.  One side arguing that it is “common sense” that if the staff at the school had been armed, the killings would have been stopped.  The other side arguing, just as passionately, that its only “common sense” that we have to do something to limit the availability and access to such weapons to keep these tragedies from happening.  
There’s something wrong with arguing from a position of “common sense.”  What you think of as “sensible” and “obvious” might be radical and ridiculous to someone else.  To address any problem, you need data.  And that’s the biggest problem I think we have in this country when discussions of guns, the events they are part of, and what to do about them resurface in the news stream.  We’re all giving our opinions that seem like “common sense” that are rejected by the people we’re arguing with.  
And that lack is by design.  
Back in 1996, an omnibus bill had a line added to it by in response to pressure put on politicians by gun lobbyists.  That line read, “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”  
That one sentence has put a virtual halt to all research on gun violence for the past twenty years.  It came after the CDC put out a student on the relationship between the rate of suicides and households where guns were kept.  The conclusion, which seems like “common sense” to me, but which now had hard data to back it up, was that homes where guns were not locked up or kept loaded were more likely to be the scene of a suicide than homes were guns were locked up or securely stored.  People contemplating suicide, it turns out according to that study, don’t go out to buy a gun before committing the deed, they use what is on hand.  I have no idea if the study reached any conclusions as to the difference of suicide rates between homes where the guns were locked away and homes where guns were not kept. 
Is even a study that implies guns should be kept secured when they are not needed creating too much of a slippery slope?  I guess so.  
This week, the AMA, in their annual meeting in Chicago, voted almost unanimously to lobby congress to lift the twenty year restriction on the CDC.  AMA president, Steven Stack, said: 
“Even as America faces a crisis unrivaled in any other developed country, the Congress prohibits the CDC from conducting the very research that would help us understand the problems associated with gun violence and determine how to reduce the high rate of firearm-related deaths and injuries...  An epidemiological analysis of gun violence is vital so physicians and other health providers, law enforcement, and society at large may be able to prevent injury, death and other harms to society resulting from firearms.”
I agree.  It is the one proposal I think will unequivocally make a difference.  It will take away the ability on both sides of claiming a given solution is just “common sense” by giving us a means to rigorously test the premises on which their common sense view is based.  And it may show us correlations that we’ve not thought of that can be used to identify people likely to perpetrate such crimes, or how they acquire the means to do so, and come up with solutions to target such people and methods.  It won’t end the debate.  But it will make it more meaningful by taking it out of the realm of pure belief.  

I would think it would be hard to argue that the AMA is some sort of radical, leftist organization bent on taking away the rights and liberties of the American people.  To me that would seem to be just common sense.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

No Expectation for Political Niceness

I've seen a lot of posts this week on Facebook, Twitter and other such places asking people to calm down and play nice in the political realm.  This upshot coincides with Hilary Clinton being the presumptive nominee for the Democrats, pitting her squarely against Donald Trump who became the presumptive nominee for the Republicans.  
The messages have basically asked the followers of the winning candidate to not be smug, reminding them that she will need the followers of the losing candidate if she hopes to win in November.  The dynamic is a bit different on the Republican side, where the leaders are refusing to disavow the winner of their primary contest even as he continues to prove that he hasn't yet reached a limit to his ability to insult and inflame one group of people or another.  They reply that, even though they don't agree with what their candidate says, they believe that, as their party's choice, he is the candidate most likely to foster their agenda in the government to be formed after this year's election.
These messages on both sides of America's political aisle, are motivated, I think, by a desire to get everyone to play nice and work together to face what could best be described as a common enemy.  To first and foremost win the election, keeping, or taking back, the necessary number of seats to control congress, and get "something" done to further the ideals they presume their party represents.  
While generally well meaning, I have a feeling that these messages are pretty much landing on deaf ears.  Or, more accurately, are not being listened to at all.  This is because people they're being directed to no longer consider themselves represented by the party they participated with during the primary elections.  They have formed separate political entities in all but name already.  And they are looking to tear down the things they belief are in their way.  
At my language group this last week, the subject of the American Presidential race came up.  Now, even though the group is a Japanese study group, we have more than just Japanese and Americans participating.  At this particular meet-up, there were people from China, from the United Kingdom, as well as from Japan and the United States.  
The one thing all the people in the discussion seemed to agree on was that the American political system was insane.  
Specifically, the biggest flaw the people from other countries seemed to see in how we elect our leaders was, in their view, the system seems designed to pick people of the most extreme points of view to pit against each other.  Why, they asked, would you create a system that favored candidates of extreme views, left and right, when, ideally, you were trying to find someone more centrist, that could build a consensus in government that could do useful things for the citizens.  
It was a difficult discussion to be a part of.  For while I felt the emotional desire to argue against the idea that our system was "crazy," as some of them put it, the choices offered up this election cycle seem to support their contention very well.  Having what amounts to a two party system means that we tend to view our candidates as "either/or," and we look for people to oppose "the other party" that we don't affiliate with.  
Furthermore, the people that come out to vote during the primaries tend to be the hardcore members of both political parties.  They are the bluest of blue and the reddest of red when it comes to their political thinking.  Moreover, they are the ones most strongly motivated by single, "push-button" issues they consider to be of vital importance.  Whether it is gay marriage, abortion, global warming, gun control/second amendment rights, they want to ensure that the candidate their party selects is favorable to their view on the topic.  I have often heard the political experts on the Sunday morning news shows I watch talk about how the hardest political maneuver a candidate has to make is, after winning their party's nomination, making that move to the center they need to make in order to win the votes of those in the center, the "independents" as they seem to be called now, that they need to win in order to take office.  
The term that gets used a lot now is "pivot."  They are no longer moving the center, they are "pivoting" toward a new direction.  A strange choice of word, pivot.  According to the dictionary it means a central point on which something turns or oscillates.  We're not even expecting our candidates to move in a more central direction anymore?  They just have to turn and glance in the direction we want them to go?  
What makes this election cycle worse is that we are seeing something that I've been sensing for some time.  I'm going to call it the Siloization of America.  It is where we, as a people, are identifying with smaller and smaller political and social groups.  And where we depend more and more on more specific sources that support these groups for our "news" and information.  When I was a kid, there were more shared sources of information, and a higher level of agreement on how information was to be vetted before being disseminated.  These days, information is consumed raw, presented in a way that tells you how to regard what you're being told and what it represents in the greater scheme of things.  If you don't like it, you can always click over to the next website to find one that tells you something more palpable.  
In such an environment, the more radical elements of any political or social group will be magnified.  They'll be the ones shouting the loudest to begin with.  They will be the ones working the hardest to ensure their beliefs are manifested in their party's stance.  And they will be the ones most concern that they are done so in an unadulterated fashion, because any form of compromise is akin to giving in to them on the other side.  
This feeling can be heard, for example, in interviews I heard with union workers at a political rally.  These were supporters of Bernie Sanders, reacting to what appears to be his loss at winning Democratic nomination for president.  More than a few of them reacted by saying they thought they would now vote for Donald Trump.  
This may seem startling when you think about it in terms of a normal liberal versus conservative, Main Street vs. Wall Street lens.  But in our current environment, where their identification isn't with the party itself, or even with the government they are presumably trying to choose, but with their own sense of alienation or belief that things are just "wrong," it is more logical.  If you are looking to destroy the system that is rigged, and the person you want to do it won't be a choice, they go with the next most likely anarchist.  
Right now it looks like the contest will be between Clinton and Trump.  In the current political context this is more a referendum on our long standing political process that a selection of the person you think would be the better president.  Voting for Clinton is a vote for the established way of doing things.  It is at best the expression of a belief that we can overcome the rancor and stagnation and find a way to get something done, if only through the sheer exhaustion both sides must be feeling over digging in their heels on every single issue, bill or judicial candidate.  At worst, its a vote to maintain the status quo for now until we find someone who can provide the leadership to change things in a positive way  
Voting for Trump is a vote to tear the system down.  I think it will be the political equivalent of pouring sugar into a car’s gas tank, but others will see it as a choice to put in someone who’ll ignore the way things have “always” be done and just “do something” about all the things they see as being “wrong.”  The people who supported Sanders during the primaries have the same impulse, I believe.  I include myself in that group, by the way.  With his constant rhetoric about the system being “rigged,” how could they not be.  

As a result, I’m not going to counsel anyone to play nice.  They wouldn’t listen to me anyway. They are too angry, too pissed off, too far gone to do that.  It’s like those times when someone throws a tantrum, you just have to step out of the way and let them exhaust themselves.  Hopefully, when they’re done, they can be reasoned with, and they haven’t broken anything truly irreplaceable.  

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Exhibit A: This Toothbrush

I can feel my resolve to be optimistic waning.  It's because the tsunami of change I was feeling sweeping through my life in March passed and it's leaving only the clean-up of what was washed away in June.  
At the time all facets of my life were in flux.  My job.  My writing.  My personal life.  Now...  It all seems the same as it ever was.  
My ex-girlfriend is the best example.  If you know me and are hearing about her for the first time, you're not alone.  I told very few people about her at first.  I wanted to make sure that there was substance to it, that it was "for real," as one might say.  
The irony is that just as I was feeling comfortable enough about the relationship to tell people about it, it just stopped.  With no evidence to show she was anything more than an imaginary friend.  
Except for the toothbrush.  
She is someone I've been acquainted with for about eight years or so.  Japanese.  A member of the language group I've been a part of since 2006.  
We would do things, either just the two of us or with other members of the group.  I thought her attractive, but she didn't seem to evidence any interest toward me.  As I was one of the group's organizers, and part of my job was to deal with male members who joined only because they had an interest in Japanese woman, I didn't feel comfortable pursuing her.  
That's about all I'm going to tell you about her.  When I started telling friends from the group about her some have recognized her from the description.  
It started in a very flattering way.  She sent me a message through Facebook where we were friends.  "Hi.  Remember me?  It's been a while.  How are you?  Are you dating anyone?"
It was the last question that got my attention.  I replied right away.  "Hello!  Of course I remember you.  I'm doing fine, and you?  Not dating anyone at present."  
"Oh.  I thought you had a girlfriend.  I'm not dating anyone either.  How about taking me on a date?"  
I did.  It went well.  Very, very well.  It turned out that all these years she had harbored an interest in me, but had not felt any reciprocating feeling from me.  
I made a very determined effort to make up for that and show her just how interested I had been and was.  
I'm going to fast forward a little bit, because it's the break-up itself that concerns me most.  I will add that it moved very fast.  Conversations about where we wanted to live, about children, about us being together was "destiny" (her term) took place.  She made a point of telling me that any home we moved into together needed to have at least two bathrooms, plus a room for her to work.  
Oh-kay...  Duly noted.  
I think she found me a bit on the slow side to take up our "destiny."  Guilty as charged.  Like I said, this was going very, very fast.  I was trying to find out about her and figure things out while she was trying to get me just accept it and go forward.  
"You like to think," she said to me once while we were laying in bed.  "Thinking is your hobby.  Because of that, you think too much.  You need to ride the rhythm."  
It took a bit of questioning to figure out that "ride the rhythm" meant "go with the flow."  She was right, though.  I do like to think and figure things out.  And I will even admit to over-thinking things at times.  
That night, as she slept, and I was holding her, I cleared my might and asked myself, "How does this feel?"  
It felt good.  Very good.
I remembered that feeling a lot while I was traveling to Japan, a trip planned and paid for well before she sent me her, "Are you dating anyone?" message.  I made the decision that, once I got back home, when I saw her next, I would have a talk with her about taking the next step.  Specifically, about finding a place to move in together.  
That conversation never happened.  
The weekend after I returned we were both sick.  Plus I was exhausted from jet lag and the effort to catch up at work.  
It was about that time that the yen suddenly spiked in strength against the dollar.  I wouldn't have thought that international exchange rates could impact a relationship, but they can.  
While she lives here in the U.S., she makes her living online from work she gets from clients in Japan.  They pay her in yen.  She then exchanges that money for American dollars to spend here.  When the yen is strong, she gets more dollars to live on.  
With the spike in the yen's strength, she decided to go all out with work.  Earn as much as she could, make up for the yen's weakness over the preceding years, invest in things she needed to invest in to improve her business.  She wasn't able to come over and stay with me, as had become our practice.  But we could have lunch.  She wanted me to understand.
Sure.  I got it.  Lunch.  I had things to do myself.  I'd let her know the time.  
Another thing that can impact a relationship is the installation of computer equipment.  The Friday before the Saturday we were to meet, arrangements were made for a technician to install a new firewall and a new wifi point in my office.  I had to babysit while they did the installation.  
I was there until Midnight.  I didn't get home till after one, or in bed until about 2 AM.  
I forgot to set my alarm.  By the time I woke up, it was after ten.  I had things I needed to get started on by eight.  
I texted her to see if we could switch dinner for lunch, explaining the situation.  I went about my business.  I texted her later to see if dinner worked for her.
Apparently it didn't.  She had time for lunch.  She was busy.  It was difficult to adjust her schedule.  She went on to tell me about all the things she was going through.  
I replied tersely at first, asking if such was the case she should have replied back to my message.  I later sent a more conciliatory tone, apologizing for trying to guilt her in my previous message, telling her to let me know if I could help with anything, asking her to take care until I could see her next. 
I never heard back from her.  I sent other messages.  Wishing her good night.  Telling her I hoped she was doing well.  I could see the messages getting delivered, but not that they were being read.  
Facebook sent me a message on a particular day that it was our five year anniversary as Facebook friends.  I sent her a message pointing this out.  And because I couldn't help myself, asked if we still were. 
The answered turned out to be, "No."  
She read that last message, plus the ones before it.  I saw that before I went to bed that night.  The next night, her account disappeared from my Friends list.  It still existed, the Messenger app showed me that.  But a couple days later the icon turned generic, as sign that the account had been deleted.  She even deleted an older, unused account that I had befriended before that.  
Guess I shouldn't have missed that lunch date. 
I recently heard about a new museum that opened up in Los Angeles.  The Museum of Broken Relationships.  It's filled with mundane, ordinary items that have meaning to someone regarding a relationship that has ended.  
I have something I might donate.  A toothbrush.  It's hers.  She brought it over the second weekend she stayed over.  When I opened my medicine cabinet Sunday morning, after she'd left, I found it propped up in a corner.  It wasn't just laid there.  It was on display, a message that said, "I belong here."  
I responded by clearing one of the shelves of my stuff and laying it there.  It's still sitting there.  The only evidence I have that she existed.  
One day, I might donate to this new museum.  Eventually.  I'm sure.