Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"We Have a Super Collaborative Environment"

I have been working as an independent consultant for almost nine months now. This is my second go-around - the first lasting around seven years. The times have been more good than bad but every once in a while I get the normal anxieties revolving around “Oh no, I finished my project, what if there aren’t any more!!” or “gee, my dogs aren’t really great conversationalists; it sure would be nice if there were people around that I could talk to once in a while” or “man, I’m tired of having to worry about paying vendors and providing 1099s for customers, and dealing with collections…” and “it would be nice to have a regular paycheck, and know what I’m going to make from one month to the next.”

These concerns, along with the 2008 recession, led to my decision to rejoin the regular workforce in 2010. I spent the next four years working in a regular job, in a regular cubicle, for a regular paycheck. Part of the reason I wanted this was so I wouldn’t have to deal with management headaches any more - accounts payable, accounts receivable, HR, etc. But I ended up dealing with them anyway. Additionally, I wanted job security, but I think we all know, there isn’t security in a job - unless you’re a tenured teacher. So what did I really gain?

Along the way, I figured out that toiling in a prairie dog farm isn’t really conducive to the kind of work I do. So much of my work is analysis and writing, and it’s difficult to really get your groove on when your co-workers are chit-chatting around you, or polling everyone to see what’s up with lunch or happy hour, or the boss taps on your desk to ask you to work on something else completely unrelated. Ask any writer, analyst, developer, designer or other creative type how long it takes him/her to get back on task once his/her focus is broken and you’ll get a variety of answers - none less than a half hour. So let’s assume these interruptions happen only twice in a day (which is being generous); that’s a full hour of wasted time, on top of the time actually taken by the interruption itself.

This isn’t really a problem, though, because this is the 21st century. We have myriad tools available that enable us to work remote yet still collaborate and respond in real-time. We don’t need to languish in the whack-a-mole existence of the 20th century office paradigm in order to be at our most efficient. Especially in the new technology fields; I mean, these are the movers and the shakers, the visionaries and provocateurs. The people in charge of these companies know instinctively that to get the best work out of the best people, you need to allow them the flexibility to work in an environment that nourishes their strengths. Some people need and feed off of the chaos of cubie-land. Others (especially those who really need to focus) need isolation.  That’s why all modern companies judge their people by their production, not by their face time. Wait. What? You’re telling me that ain’t so?

Early last year I found myself disillusioned with a job that was feeling more and more like a Terry Gilliam film at every passing minute. I was commuting an hour to work each day, most of the work I was assigned was not what I was hired to do, and not what I wanted to do, and when I was able to work in my area (research / analysis, writing) I was being constantly interrupted with impertinent questions and requests about random things. So while I was deciding whether to make the jump to the independent world, I decided to put the feelers out and see what other full-time opportunities might exist that would jibe with my style of work.

And that’s when it occurred to me. While the world has changed dramatically, HR has remained stuck in the mid-20th century. They’ve updated some of their jargon, but it’s like there’s a script and every one of them has to say essentially the same things and ask essentially the same questions. Questions like “where do you want to be in five years?” I was shocked people still ask that. And “tell me about your greatest strengths and weaknesses.”  “Well, I have really good night-vision. But chicken wings give me gas.”

Although I’m content with my current situation as an independent consultant, I still don’t dismiss anything, out of hand. I see opportunities from time to time that pique my interest so I follow up on them. I’ve had a handful of interviews in the last year and the process and question / answer portion of every interview has been so similar, I’ve started cutting to the chase early on.

The most important thing to me, even over money, is the flexibility to work when, how, and where I am the most effective. That will lead to much better results for my employer, and much better job satisfaction for myself. And if I’m satisfied, I will work even harder, and provide even better results, providing more satisfaction for myself, and better results for my employer. Which will lead to my working harder - you get the picture.

Since I’m happy doing what I’m doing, and really don’t have anything to lose, I am very honest with the interviewers and tell them “I work better when I have the flexibility that allows me to sequester myself when I need to really focus. Additionally, I have zero desire to spend 2 hours in a car every day to get to a cube farm and sit for 8 hours for the sole purpose of being present. What is your company’s policy toward telecommuting?” Now, I completely understand that sometimes it’s necessary to be present. Staff meetings, client meetings, focus groups, user testing, etc. - all require presence. Sometimes it’s also nice just to have a place to go where there are other people around. Maybe I need to bounce ideas off someone in person. It’s great to have that available. But to be there just to be there, especially when there are things like Skype, email, cellphones, Webex, and so on, is an anachronistic holdover to the days of the Cleaver clan.

The answers I get when I ask this have all been eerily identical - “Well, we have a very collaborative environment and it’s important that everyone be here.” I even said to one “Oh, so the company values face time” and she interrupted with “Oh yes, management really likes to see people in the office!” and then I finished my sentence “...over productivity.” She was speechless. That one, in particular told me that they try to be flexible so that if you have some kind of family obligation they’ll let you work from home one day. But if you could be in the office, they expect you to be in the office. AND, if you can’t make it in, for instance if there’s a weather event, it’s okay to work from home. How generous.

Look, I understand that some people need to be in the office. But the kind of work I do requires a certain amount of isolation sometimes. Sometimes I work better at 10:00 at night. Also, I’m expected to be on call after hours and on weekends - and I’m completely fine with that. I want to do the work when it needs to be done. But that’s a two way street. If I’m going to be on call, and working after hours, then I need to have the flexibility to NOT be in the office every day from 9 to 5, if the only reason I’m there is just so someone gets to gaze upon me. If you expect me to be in the office, every day, for the sole purpose of ticking a “present” box, then you shouldn’t expect me to be on call after hours, or on weekends. And if it snows, forget working. However, if you provide the flexibility for me to be an adult, and get my work done when I do it best, and collaborate as much as necessary, then I’ll work after hours, on weekends, in the snow, and even on vacation. And I think most responsible grownups will behave exactly the same way.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Je Suis Charlie

And now for some good news. The fact that mainstream (as opposed to underground) organizations can publish content like that which Charlie Hebdo, The Onion, The Chive, National Lampoon, The Daily Show, Jon Oliver, The Colbert Report, etc., etc. publish, without governmental interference, without risk of being arrested and tried for sedition or heresy, without risking ostracization from society shows that we have come a REALLY long way.

Many of us (far more than will admit) have known for centuries that the god of Abraham was a myth created as an oral tradition to give a nomadic tribe a sense of community and heritage. It's a myth every bit as much as the myths of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Norse, Zoroastrians, Inca, Maya, Aztec, and on and on. It's not even a particularly good, coherent, consistent myth. 

But whatever, it kept a tribe together. It led to a few sects where people believed variants of the myth, and then it led to 2 other new tribes, that now have their own sects of variant beliefs. But don't think for a moment that just because a majority of people in the world believe (or profess belief) in the god of Abraham, that that somehow gives it credence. It doesn't. It just means its adherents are very good at brainwashing infants before they have the ability to call bullshit.

And it all comes back around to yesterday's events. Muslims killed 12 people in cold blood because they can't take a joke. Because they believe their god is so delicate and vainglorious they have to kill people on its behalf.  I intentionally said "Muslims" because to use the modifier "radical" is to apologize for all of the idiotic beliefs. All Islam is stupid. Much of it is downright dangerous.

Now, this is not to say the other revealed religions are any better but here's the thing - most Jews quit buying into the "inerrant word of god" BS centuries ago. Some bozos (like the ones who demand to be segregated on airplanes) make a newsworthy exception, but they are also a laughing stock AND they haven’t threatened to kill anyone, they’re just a pain in the ass to the travelling public. 

Christianity has even come a long way. There are still plenty of them who actually believe in the immaculate conception. (Curiously, since most [American] christians are pretty ignorant and haven’t even read their own bible, they don’t really know the immaculate conception doesn’t refer to Jesus’s conception, but Mary’s). Also because most [American] christians are what I call “cafeteria christians” they tend to pick and choose the parts of the bible they want to believe. For instance, it's okay to judge, apparently. Also that whole "Vengeance is mine. Saith the LORD" bit can be ignored. 

While there are still a few nutjobs who picket funerals, some whackos bomb abortion clinics, and this idiot believes bananas were intelligently designed, most of them are pretty happy-go-lucky. I mean, they are okay sending soldiers to go fight a war in a foreign land to defend what they call “freedom”, which is actually not freedom because they also want to have mandatory prayer in schools, want to post the 10 commandments and crosses all over the landscape… come to think of it, most christians haven’t really come too far - except that it’s rare to see them strap bombs to themselves and walk into crowded places to kill infidels. 

Anyway, I think we’ve come a long way because as a society we’re okay having people poke fun at our beliefs. We may not like it and we may get really angry over it, but it’s very rare that people kill any more over insulted superstitions. The outpouring of support for freedom of expression as a result of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations yesterday shows we may be finally turning the corner to enlightenment. I think that belief in sky-fairies may be starting into its death throes. As their behavior becomes more and more violent, and the defiance against them becomes louder and louder, and as those of us who know it’s just a man behind the curtain, and not actually The Wizard of Oz, grow in numbers - we may actually see the death of religion on the horizon - at least the middle eastern revealed religions. 

I don’t look for this in my lifetime. But as science makes greater strides in explaining the universe, there’s just no need for burnt offerings and superstitious beliefs in the hereafter. 


Monday, January 5, 2015

White People Aren't All Bad

To say that race relations has been a hot topic in the 2nd half of 2014 is a HUGE understatement. Whether it was the shooting death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, or the chokehold and subsequent heart attack of Eric Garner in New York, it seems that there’s a war between white people - particularly white cops - and black people. The problem with this notion is that it focuses on very specific examples and misses a much larger picture that shows we have made tremendous strides, and relations keep getting better, despite these newsworthy tragedies.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, particularly since the Ferguson protests (as I’m sure most other people have too) and I have some very pointed thoughts on it. Thoughts that may not resonate with all my readers, but that are valid, nonetheless. The thoughts range from stereotypes and the broad-brush characterization of whites and blacks, slavery, white privilege, where we are today, and how far we’ve come in a very short time. 

There seems to be this idea among many white folks that any black man with dreads and droopy drawers is a thug. This just isn’t true. (Now, if you see a WHITE kid with dreads and droopy drawers, he’s probably a huge stoner. If he’s wearing a shaved head, sideways hat, wife-beater and droopy drawers, he’s a thug wannabe.) Similarly, many white folks conflate protesters, rioters, and looters. These are three distinct groups. Protesters are good for our democracy. Heck, a riot for a good reason is good for our democracy. Looting is never good. But the looters in the most recent protests were simply criminal opportunists. They don’t represent all, or even most black people. They represent the same percentage of any group of people that are only out for themselves - whether they’re black, white, red, green, or purple. 

I know a lot of black people. They don’t relate to the looters any more than I do. They don’t condone the looting. They are as disappointed in looters as the rest of us. In fact, they are probably far more disappointed because the looters in Ferguson appeared to be mostly black, which will lead some white folks to say “see, all they wanted was an excuse to loot.” Those white folks are right and wrong. They’re right if the intended “they” is the aforementioned minority that exists in any group who are only interested in personal gain. If the intended “they” is all black people, well that’s just stupid. 

Also, keep in mind that “looting” is often defined by media types - and we all know how they are. Take, for instance this piece in EggbertoWillies.com that shows us how AP reporters described two separate instances of the same behavior. In this example we see a white couple “finding food for their family” while we see a “black man, looting.”  Or how about this portrayal of James Trafficant, versus the portrayal of Marion Barry. So, yeah, racism exists, along with media bias and sensationalism. And it’s appalling.

Furthermore, I don’t think the majority of black people hate cops. I think many of them are afraid of cops, and white cops in particular, but I don’t think they hate them. Is it a reasonable fear? Maybe. I think the fear has been exacerbated by poor journalism, media sensationalism, and race-baiters like Al Sharpton. But that doesn’t mean cops don’t have, at the very least, hair-triggers and a PR problem. And don’t get me wrong; I don’t think my black friends’ fear of cops isn’t real; I do think the reason for the fear has more to do with certain parties blowing events out of proportion for their own gains than it does with an average black man’s actual level of danger.
An interesting statistic reported by Real Clear Politics indicates:

“Young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than are young white males, Pro Publica said. But because more than two-thirds of police officers are white and blacks commit about half of violent crimes, it stands to reason most police shootings would involve a white cop and a black suspect.

Blacks also are more likely than whites, Hispanics or Asians to resist arrest, according to Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute.”

So what does this mean? It means black men aren’t being targeted by white cops. But the media want you to believe they are. It sells more papers. 

Am I saying racism isn’t real? Of course not. I see it often. Institutional racism still exists. Individual racism still exists. Sometimes it’s blatant, and other times it’s more of a subcurrent. But racism is fading. That’s not to say there aren’t still prejudices. I have prejudices; we all do. I pay closer attention to my surroundings when I’m in a majority black environment. That’s a subconscious behavior that’s been conditioned since long before I could reason for myself. But it’s not my internal dialogue that’s important - it’s my outward behavior that matters. Every individual who comes before me is treated with equal respect until he or she gives me a reason to increase or decrease that level of respect. And I think that’s true for more and more people all the time. 

So what about “reverse racism.” To be precise, as “racism” requires that one race be in position of power, and that power is used to hold down members of another race, then reverse racism doesn’t, and can’t exist. However, that doesn’t mean black people don’t have prejudices. If they’re people, they have prejudices. But I don’t think the prejudices held by most black people are malicious, but come from a place of frustration. Frustration over a legacy of slavery, followed by Jim Crow laws, lynchings, poll taxes, poll tests, redlining, white flight, and the most up-to-date term - “white privilege.” 

“White Privilege” is a loaded term. I’m not sure I would replace it, simply because whatever replaces it will become the new loaded term. If you don’t believe me, just look at the evolution from “moron” to “developmentally challenged” and all the politically correct terms that came between. Whatever the term is, it’s the subject that’s loaded, not the term itself. But I digress… Let’s look at “White Privilege.”

First, I don’t think it’s a real stretch, despite what Bill O’Reilly might think, to say that “White Privilege” is a thing. The real questions should be to what degree it’s a thing, and what can realistically be done about it. I’m going to say it right now - I benefit from my whiteness. I know that I have a long history of privilege in this country. About 400 years to be precise. My ancestors came over as pioneers. They came over looking for opportunities in a new and unexplored world. They had hardships and tragedies. Eventually some of them owned slaves. But, more importantly, over time they established land holdings and, although not among the elite, they developed heritable wealth that allowed subsequent generations to start with a foot up. 

Do I feel bad about this? No way. I live a comfortable life, but I’m not wealthy. I grew up in a mixed, middle class suburb and went to public schools and an in-state university close to home because that’s what we could afford. But I don’t feel bad or guilty about it - any more than Katt Williams should feel bad for growing up in a mixed, middle class suburb, raised by professional parents. Or Dave Chappelle, or Chris Rock, or Condoleezza Rice. (To be fair, Chris Rock grew up in Brooklyn; not really a suburb.) Did they have it easy? I would venture to say “no”. However, all kids have it bad. Chris Rock is known to have been beat up and bullied by white kids at the school he was bussed to. I would counter that I’m no stranger to having been beaten up by older black boys when I was in elementary school. Because I had deigned to speak to the younger sister of the chief bully - and I was white. 

Still, I know that I benefit from 400 years of being white in a predominantly white country. I’m not sorry for it, and more importantly, there’s nothing I can do about it. I never owned slaves. I never fired anyone for being black. I never didn’t hire someone for being black. I haven’t refused to sell a home to a black person. I have never refused to serve a black person in a restaurant. I shared classrooms with black kids my entire school career. It wasn’t unusual or foreign to me. So to blame me for an institution I didn’t create, didn’t perpetuate, didn’t participate in, and have no way to undo, is wrong-headed. 

We know all the things white people have done to black people over the years - and make no mistake, white people have done some abjectly horrendous things. Sometimes out of some ignorant notion about racial purity, sometimes using the bible as an excuse, and sometimes just from pure evil spite. But I’m going to blow your minds now and tell you all the things white people have done FOR black people over the years. And this is not to take away from the struggle that black people have endured, or the sacrifices that black individuals have made, or the hard work that black people have put in to get ahead in a world that was trying to keep them down; this is just to say that white people not only aren’t all bad, but the majority of white people have been on your side the whole time. 

Shall we start with slavery? Oh do, let’s. Did white people invent slavery? Nope. There are literal volumes of information that can be studied to tell you about the history of slavery in the world. Unfortunately, most people haven’t read them. Most white apologists like to over-generalize it down to one item and say “whites didn’t start the slave trade” and most black apologists like to over-generalize in the other direction and say “whites captured my people and shipped us to a foreign land against our will.” Both sides have elements of truth, but miss bigger pictures and serve only to continue an argument for no reason other than “my side is better than your side because ‘x’.” 

Wikipedia actually has a great crystallization of the history of slavery (in the western world) and I encourage you to read it. I’m not going to regurgitate it here, but I will share the high points; at least as they pertain to the discussion at hand. White Europeans did not invent slavery. White Europeans did not capture slaves in Africa. White Europeans DID participate HEAVILY in the African slave trade and caused a few interesting things. 

According to the aforementioned Wikipedia entry, slavery was a way of life in Africa, and had been for nearly 3,000 years before white people arrived. But when white people arrived, their huge demand for slaves increased the costs, increased the taking of slaves, and subsequently destroyed economies. All of a sudden, it was more profitable to sell slaves to Europeans than it was to keep the slaves to plough your fields. That left no one to do the manual labor. That left labor undone. And that was calamitous to African society. The upshot is that it eventually brought an end to the practice. 

In 1808, the practice of transporting slaves from Africa officially ended in the United States. This didn’t end the internal slave trade, but it went a long way toward it. This was carried out by white people. A large enough majority of white people in America were opposed to the practice in the United States, that federal legislation was passed. There was still a lot of money being made on the backs of slaves, so it was politically imprudent and untenable to abolish slavery completely, but the ending of the importation was certainly a coffin-nail in the institution. 

For the next 50 years, abolitionists pushed against the monied aristocracy of the south to try to end the immoral practice. The fight still resonates today because it was the “One Percenters” who owned most of the slaves. Money kept the practice legal until it was completely untenable. Then, in the bloodiest war in American history, millions of white people gave their lives to free the slaves. To be sure, blacks were fighting right alongside, but the war never would have been fought without the support of the majority of white Americans supporting it. 

And in another notion that still resonates today, millions of Americans were conned into fighting against the end of slavery, contrary to their own best interests. Poor Americans who didn’t own slaves, and didn’t benefit at all from the practice of slavery, were hoodwinked by the elites with cries of “States Rights” and “Tyranny”, and “Imperialism”, (much like the same cries, along with “Socialism” that we hear from the Tea Partiers today) that they gave their lives - ignobly, to keep the slaves in chains, and the rich in clover. 

But the long and short is that white people ended slavery in the western world. A practice that had existed for 3 millennia, ended with the American Civil War. (There is still illicit slavery in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, but none of it is codified or sanctioned.) 

After the reconstruction, the ignorant hillbillies of the south were again conned into supporting racist policies by the wealthy who stood to benefit by it. With cries of “States Rights”, and “Tyranny”, and “Racial Purity”, and “Imperialism” (seriously, don’t they get tired of the same tropes?) the political and wealthy elites passed a series of laws (known as Jim Crow laws) that forbade black people from commingling with white people. They weren’t allowed to eat in white restaurants, drink from white water fountains, be educated in white schools, buy homes in white neighborhoods, or even vote. White people passed these laws. And they were ignorant and evil. Not to mention cynical. There’s a famous story about a liberal politician in Alabama, who lost a gubernatorial election to race-baiter. Up to that point, this politician had been a friend to black constituents, he was brought up in and worked for the betterment of all people in Alabama’s black belt. And then he was beat by a race baiter. His reaction was “I’ll never be out-niggered again.” That man was George Wallace, who went on to be elected to serve as Alabama’s governor in 1962, 1970, and 1982. (Ironically, it was the black vote that put him over the top in 1982.) That is cynicism personified. 

So what happened to the Jim Crow laws? Black people struggled. Black people marched. Black people died for their right to vote. But white people ended the policies. In 1808, white people ended the practice of importing slaves. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln, a white president, issued the “Emancipation Proclamation,” which some southerners will argue didn’t free slaves in the north, but since there were virtually no slaves in the north, that’s really kind of a stupid argument. In 1870, white people passed the 15th Amendment, giving blacks the right to vote, and in 1964, that right to vote was affirmed with the passage of the Civil Rights act - by a white administration and a white congress. In 1967, the first black Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, was nominated by a white president and confirmed by a white congress. And in 2008, white people elected Barack Obama to be the first black president of the United States. 

Thurgood Marshall, Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, Barack Obama, Colin Powell - all confirmed, nominated and/or elected by white people. That’s to say nothing of their qualification; they are all brilliant, talented, educated, and hard-working. But they would not be where they were if “all white people are racist.” And that’s also not to say that “White people are just oh so magnanimous.” Not at all. Black people have been on the front lines of their struggle way more than white people have. They’ve felt the crack of the whip, the bite of the dog, and the sting of the firehose. It’s just to say that as much as we must be careful not to paint the dreadlocked, droopy-drawered black man as a thug, so black people shouldn’t assume white people are racists. Most of us have your back - even when we get in philosophical disagreements about the nature of racism and/or white privilege. Most of us realize that we are all better off if we all have equal opportunities at success. Most of us want black people to succeed as much as black people want to succeed. Remember that the next time you see Al Sharpton on his own TV show talking about white people being racist. 

Have we reached the apex of race relations? I certainly hope not. Things are good, to be sure, but they’re not equal. But as much as we must continue to strive to get better and be better, I think it’s equally important to remember how far we’ve come in a very short time. Recently I watched the Barbara Walters 10 Most Fascinating People of 2014 Special and in her interview with Oprah Winfrey, she showed a clip from the upcoming film “Selma”. Oprah plays Annie Lee Cooper, a voting rights activist. In the clip, Annie Lee is turned away from a voting booth multiple times because she can’t pass an impossibly difficult poll test. A test that was designed to keep black people away from the polls. That was 1965. 50 years ago. I was born in 1968. That event is just outside my lifetime. And now we have a black president. If that’s not monumental progress in a relatively infinitesimal timespan, I don’t know what is. And by the way - Annie Lee Cooper died in 2010. She lived to see the election of Barack Obama. So while it’s important to be vigilant and keep fighting the good fight, we also must remember the positive things. They happen all around us all the time, and many of us never notice.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Another Boring Post About Climate Change

When a compelling argument is made and supported by a preponderance of evidence and a majority of experts, that argument should speak for itself, without the help of inflammatory, disingenuous, or misleading language. If there is a compelling argument from the other side, that's also worth hearing, if it is based on good information and has the support of experts.

What could I be talking about? The environment, of course. I think most people would agree that the climate is changing, just based on what we see and hear in our news sources and on the internet. I can't tell you that I've noticed anything anecdotal that would indicate to me the climate is changing, but if 97% of the experts tell me it is, give me examples, and show me data, then I will concede that, yes, the climate is probably changing.

Now we come to the "however." If the 3% of dissenters are offering evidence that counters the claim, and they make good, reasoned, compelling arguments, I'm going to listen to them, as well. Like I said, I can't tell that the summers are hotter, or the winters are warmer, or the storms are more fierce - they haven't affected me directly. I MUST listen to people who claim to have recorded these, and then make my own decisions.

I understand that "climate" and "weather" are different things - I'm not stupid. However, if you tell me that the world is consistently warmer year after year after year, and all I can see is that the last two summers where I am have been incredibly mild - and you tell me that the winters are far warmer, but all I can see is more snow than I've ever seen, a polar vortex that froze my tushy off, and incredible photos from the Great Lakes as they were more covered in ice than in years, you're going to have to give me some evidence. And tweaking the words you use is not going to fool me.

The climate is an amazingly complex thing. Plants and animals expire gases, the earth has lava at its core, the sun can be more or less active seemingly on a whim, weather patterns change, and man creates pollution. These all have an effect. I get that. So when I see a quote like this: "May 2014 was the warmest May globally since records began in 1880. The average global temperature this May was 59.9 degrees, 1.3 degrees hotter than the May average for the whole of the 20th century. (Vox.com)," it kind of irritates me.

Either the first sentence is a lie, or the second is a typo. In order for the average temperature of all Mays since 1880 to be 58.6 degrees, there had to be many of those 134 Mays that were much cooler, and many that were much warmer. I just plain don't believe that they all hovered right around the 58.6 mark. Some had to have averaged 60 degrees, and some 50 degrees. Some may have been even warmer - or cooler.

So I decided to look it up on the NOAA site and I found some peculiar things. One is that the global average temperatures are exactly that - global. BUT, not all the places reporting temperatures have been doing so for the entire 134 years. South Korea, for instance, only dates back to 1973. Spain to 1971, but Australia dates all the way back to 1910. And what about the sites WITHIN Australia? I suspect there's a huge difference between the temperature in Melbourne and the temperature in Cairns. Have they both been reporting for the whole time? What about Perth and Alice Springs?

Look, I'm not denying that climate change is real. I'm saying this kind of research gives credence to the deniers by throwing disparate data into one big pot and calling what comes out an average. It's either lazy, or dishonest. I'd be interested in seeing averages that compare apples to apples to see what they reveal.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Warning: Bicycles Ahead!

A couple of weeks ago I was riding my bicycle down Connecticut Avenue near Adams Morgan in DC. As I approached a three way intersection, I noticed the light was changing. I opted to continue through the light.

There were a couple of pedestrians waiting to cross the street and one yelled at me as I sailed through the now red light “You ran that light buddy!” Yes I did. He was right and, technically speaking, I could have stopped so I should have stopped. However, everyone who ever drives a car on roads frequented by cyclists should be thankful I ran that light.

Let me explain… You see, not only did I not hold up the pedestrians - even in that man’s wildest dreams, he couldn’t possibly RUN fast enough to have been far enough into the crosswalk for me to have hindered his progress - I also didn’t hold up any cars. The light was red right before I got to it, which means the cars coming the other direction didn’t yet have a green light.

But none of that really matters when talking about why you should be glad I ran the light. You should be glad because if you’re going the same way I am, it means that when your light turns green again, I’ll be long gone and out of your way. As a cyclist, I have every right to the lane as you do. I’ll do my best to stay as far to the right as I can, but sometimes that isn’t enough, so it’s better that I just keep moving.

I’m not advocating completely flouting traffic laws and riding willy-nilly all over the roads any way I damn well please. I’m advocating a practice of getting, and staying out of the way of traffic whenever possible. Sometimes that means jumping red lights. Sometimes it means going the wrong direction on one-way streets. Sometimes it means getting off the bike and using the crosswalk.

One thing I always try to avoid, if I can, is riding on the sidewalk. Most sidewalks aren’t big enough to accommodate bicycles. When I do have to use the sidewalk, I ride REALLY slow because pedestrians are notoriously self-absorbed and oblivious to their surroundings. For the record, I can’t stand the jackass cyclists that fly down the sidewalks like they own them. For that matter, as a driver, I can’t stand the jackass cyclists who fly down the roads and through intersections without slowing a little bit to check their surroundings.

Pay attention the next time you see a cyclist run a red light. If he slows down and looks around before sailing through, and he doesn’t hinder anyone’s progress, he just did someone a favor; it may not have been you this time around, but he saved someone a little bit of time. You should thank him.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Goodbye My Friend

Goodbye my friend

Today the world lost a tremendous talent, and I lost a dear friend. Lao Tzu said “The flame that burns twice as bright, burns half as long.” He had men like Frank Cummings in mind.

You won’t see Frank memorialized in the national media, although he was easily as talented as any singer, dancer, actor, or artist you’ve heard of. If you asked him, he’d say “nah, I’m just a silly cartoonist.” A silly cartoonist with a rapier wit, and a self-deprecating humor that showed true humility.

I worked for Frank at “JAB Magazine” in the early 90’s. JAB was a local satire magazine, in the style of “Cracked” or “MAD” that poked fun at the local politicians and celebrities in Birmingham, Alabama. Frank, along with Tim and Andy Spinosi, and Jim “Coyote J. Calhoun” Batten saw an opportunity to express their creativity and that outlet quickly drew a cult following.

After a couple of years, the guys decided to go national…


National distribution proved a huge undertaking. Lessons learned, lumps taken, Frank moved on to some other amazing things. Since the mid-90s, he’s produced Richard Simmons’ newsletter, contributed to “Cracked Magazine” and for the last 10 or so years, he’s been one of the artists of the most widely distributed comic in the world - Blondie.


More than all this though, Frank was a good friend. He was always quick to have a beer, to commiserate in bad times and revel in good times. He had no pretension and despite his insane talent, had no delusions of grandeur. As far as he was concerned, he was just a dumb kid from Kentucky who got paid to draw funny pictures.

I used to hang out with Frank, and a handful of other guys, every Tuesday night in a garage or warehouse in Birmingham. We accomplished nothing of any particular merit. There was no plan and no agenda. Mostly we just sat around in folding chairs drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and talking shit. I moved away from Birmingham several years ago and obviously couldn’t make the “5 Guys in a Garage” meetings any more, but I still kept up with Frank. We talked often, corresponded through email or Facebook from time to time, and I would try to meet him in New York if I could when he made his semi-annual pilgrimage.

I don’t know any secrets about Frank and I don’t hold any dirty laundry. Maybe he doesn’t have any. I’ve heard funny stories from his past about roommates and friends and bosses and girlfriends and wives and family members and he’s always been an open book. He never hid his true feelings about things and he never tried to be someone he wasn’t.

Frank was always a joy to be around and a good friend. His presence, his talent, his work, his personality - made the world just a little bit better than it would have been without him. And that says a lot.

Goodbye Frank. We’ll miss you.


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

It's a Fleeting Life

Last week was emotionally difficult. Over the space of three days I lost two friends. Now, these weren't best friends or particularly close friends, but they were people whose paths crossed mine in a significant way during different points in my life. I knew them well. I liked them. I will miss them. Both were wonderful people who always offered smiles, kind words, and inspiration to others. For those of you who know me, you know I'm not wont to offer treacly platitudes, so for me to give these descriptions, you must know these people made an impact. 

On Wednesday morning, my friend lost a valiant fight to overcome breast cancer. I understood her to be in remission, so either I understood wrong, or the cancer came back with a vengeance. She was 42. This is a devastating illness that takes far too many women at far too young an age. 

If you're one who's taken with politicizing charity groups like The Komen Foundation because "oh, they support abortion" or "oh, they kowtowed to the right and quit supporting Planned Parenthood", do me a favor - shut up. Because you know what else the Komen Foundation does? They spend enormous resources supporting cancer research and prevention; and that's all that matters.

On Friday morning, another friend lost a different kind of battle - this one against personal demons. Here was a man who brightened a room with his mere presence. He was never without a joke, or funny anecdote; personable, bigger than life. But like so many others suffering from depression, the light, avuncular exterior belied a dark and troubled psyche. We no longer live in the same town, so I don't know what might have triggered his deep despair or if there were signals, any kind of cry for help, but I know from personal experience, there are almost always clues, but most of us don't know how to recognize them.

This is the second friend in 8 months to commit suicide. The first was someone I knew less well but for a much longer time. I spoke to him a few weeks before he took his life. He was in a very dark place - business trouble, marital trouble, substance abuse, and the creeping mortality of mid-life all haunted him.

It's common for depressed people to believe they are doing their loved ones a favor, particularly if there are money troubles. Often there will be life insurance policies payable to the survivors and the depressed parties actually believe "They'll be better off without me." If you, dear reader, ever have that thought, let me tell you right now - NO, they WON'T. You see, suicide is a permanent solution to what is almost always a temporary problem, and by your making that ultimate decision, you are leaving people behind who will always have a big hole in their souls. 

And that doesn't even begin to touch the guilt. My two friends both have children. Fortunately (is that even an appropriate word in this context?) their children are grown, and probably understand a bit more about mental illness than they would have as impressionable kids. When it happens to a kid, the first feeling is guilt. "What did I do to cause this?" That's not to say there won't be feelings of guilt by adult survivors. "Why didn't I recognize his depression?" "What was so bad he couldn't deal with it any more?" "What could I have done to prevent this?" Adults are better equipped to handle these questions, given time, but they are by no means immune from the feelings. 

You'll hear people from time to time talking about suicide being selfish, or how those committing suicide are "taking the easy way out". Let me dispel those for you. For the person who feels those left behind will be better off, "selfish" is the exact opposite of what he's feeling. He truly believes he's doing them a favor. As for "The easy way out", that's just stupid. It takes quite a set to taste the cold steel of a gun barrel and pull the trigger. There's nothing easy about it. These are people who are so tormented, disillusioned and deluded, they don't believe there's any other way. Accusing them of being selfish or taking the easy way out is like calling those who jumped off the Twin Towers on 9/11 cowards for not hanging out in the inferno and waiting for help. 

There was a girl I knew in high school who committed suicide. She threatened suicide and no one took her seriously. They thought it was a joke. When I heard about it, it made me physically ill. By that time I already had some experience with it and knew there was no such thing as a suicide joke. I couldn't believe her parents and her friends hadn't taken her seriously.

I don't know where I'm going with this screed, or what I hope to accomplish. Mostly catharsis I guess. All of us have the capacity for self-absorption and self-pity. If you've ever been in a romantic relationship for any length of time and you haven't had a fleeting thought about suicide or homicide, you're probably not normal. But to ever seriously consider it shows you have a problem and you need help. Don't just assume the feelings will pass. Go get help. Your family and friends depend on you. 

So go now. Be happy. Hug your loved ones. If someone threatens suicide or seems really depressed, get help. If you feel depressed, get help. If you're a woman, check your breasts. And if you're human and you care, make a donation to the Komen Foundation.