Sunday, April 29, 2007

Traffic Jam

Most of the country must know by now that we've had a - well, an incident - here in the S.F. Bay Area. Here's the short account (excerpted from today's

At around 3:40 AM, a gasoline tanker truck, loaded with 8,600 gallons of unleaded gasoline, was passing through the MacArthur Maze, on its way from a refinery in Benicia to a gas station on Hegenberger Road in Oakland. The driver was a 51 year old man from Yolo County; the current police account is that he was going too fast in a 50 MPH zone and rolled his truck. He was also, I'll add, negotiating one of the worst-designed freeway interchanges in the country. It was never good; and when they rebuilt the interchange after the Loma Prieta earthquake, they made it much worse. It's so bad that I refuse to drive it: I get off the freeway and take other routes.

The overturned truck burst into flames, estimated 200 feet high; the temperature reached 2,000 degrees; the freeway supports
melted; and something in excess of 250 yards of the freeway (I've seen it called 275) slumped down onto the freeway connector underneath. You can see photos and video at the linked site; it's really impressive to see a huge section of freeway, draped like a Dali watch.

There isn't much to do about this but boggle. The first boggle: nobody died. The only injury was the driver, currently hospitalized with second degree burns; but he got himself out of the truck on his own and took a taxi to the hospital on his own. They say he'll be out in a few more days. A cat that did this would have blown about 4 of his 9 lives.

The second boggle: oh, what this will do to the commute traffic. You can get to San Francisco just fine; but you can't get back if your destination is on highways 580 or 24.
Well, you can, but you'll have to take the West Grand exit and travel for better than a mile on city streets. With stop lights. And you can't get directly from Berkeley to the Coliseum (and points south) any more. You have to loop through a series of freeway connectors; at least it's all freeway.

I can't draw any brilliant conclusions from this, except that all the world loves to gawk at a disaster, and this is an eminently gawkable disaster. Don't speed with a truck full of gasoline? Don't assume you can make that curve?

And thank God my personal commute doesn't go this way.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Counting Down

As of today, I have eight weeks left in my working life. My last day in the office is Friday June 22. (Yes, I know I said June 30; I'm burning some vacation.) I'm beginning to feel very weird; the words "lame duck" occur to me regularly. At least one of my colleagues has said to me, "I can't give you anything new to do."

I'm trying to clean up (or at least document, so someone else can clean up) all the weird little messes I know about, that I've never had time to take on. My team has decided that the guy who will "take over" most of my critical stuff is a newbie to the group, who lives on the other coast. I'm not arguing with their decision; in the long run, or even the medium term, it's not my problem. However, one of my problems with my current job is that I never get to do anything technical; and this same guy was complaining to me recently that he never gets to do anything technical; so my prognosis for the long term of this arrangement isn't good. I have a feeling that I'll transition everything to him, and then he'll bag the whole business for a job as a sysadmin somewhere.

My boss also wants me to "teach the engineers" how to do what I do as a technical consultant. This is a very odd request, which I don't think I can satisfy in a mere 8 weeks, since a good deal of what I do is a side effect of the fact that I'm (a) an English major, so that I enjoy writing and do it well, and (b) an outgoing people-oriented type, who likes to talk to people about what they are trying to do (and then turn it into technical specs). The engineers he wants me to train are nice guys, to a man; but every one of them is also a techie to the core, which means he doesn't
like to write, doesn't write well, and doesn't know how to talk to people - or, more accurately, to listen to them and understand what they're saying. The other problem with this is that my preferred method of communicating is to write stuff down, in great detail; and all the engineers hate to read, and mostly don't read my doc because it's "too long."

But there's nothing I can do about all that. I think I'll just have to do the best I can, and then walk away from it. Someone asked me yesterday whether I care that there "won't be anybody" to clean up "all the little messes". Well, I do care; but I also understand that there will never be a time without a bunch of little messes to clean up. You have to put a stake in the ground; and I've done so.

But I still feel very strange.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Quack, quack

No, this is not about ducks. In fact, in the interests of full disclosure I will tell you up front that if you are a devotee of homeopathic medicine, I am about to piss you off.

I am annoyed at my gym. In general it's pretty good; clean, well maintained, new equipment; so I'm giving them a pass by not including their name. In the interests of Earth Day they published their own version of (in this case) 40 "small things each of us can do" to help the earth. I was browsing through it to see if they included the one I've been doing for 35 years (cloth dinner napkins instead of paper - they missed it; they did get the cloth towels for spills), and when I got to #32 I'm afraid I blew my stack. Number 32 said,
"Use homeopathic remedies rather than synthetic drugs - it's healthier for you and the planet."
Well, I can't deny that homeopathic remedies are healthier for the planet. Being composed entirely of water, you could pour them into storm drains with no visible impact on the environment. But - healthier for you?? I don't understand how an organization that regularly sends me emails about exercise, good nutrition, etc., can possibly suggest to me that I should stop taking the "synthetic drugs" which are currently managing my thyroiditis, my rheumatoid arthritis, and my osteoarthritis, and replace them with expensive homeopathic remedies compounded according to the "law of infinitesimals" (I am not making this up), which suggests that the less of something there is, the more powerful an effect it has.

Homeopathic medications are composed along the principles used by the man I once read about who liked his martinis extremely dry - he locked the gin in a closet at the back of the house, and walked past it once a month, carrying a bottle of vermouth. The dilutions commonly used in homeopathic remedies are so extreme that it is physically, chemically, impossible for any molecule of the advertised substance to be in the bottle they sell you. But because they shake it up really hard before diluting it again (and again, and again...), they argue that
the vigorous shaking or pulverizing with each step of dilution leaves behind a "spirit-like" essence—"no longer perceptible to the senses"—which cures by reviving the body's "vital force." Modern proponents assert that even when the last molecule is gone, a "memory" of the substance is retained.
Sure it is. This is pure medievalism: as above, so below. I shudder to think of the effect should some innocent take this advice seriously and quit taking something they really need, like blood pressure meds, or nitro for heart trouble. Or prednisone for any of the really nasty conditions that appalling drug gets prescribed for. The idea that homeopathic remedies are "less harmful" comes from the fact that they were developed in the 19th and early 20th century and, because they have no effect at all, were less harmful than many of the 19th century's orthodox medical practices, thereby allowing patients to recover naturally, in some cases, from conditions where the medical doctor's standard treatment would have killed them.

You don't need to take my word for all this. I've found a wonderful site called Quackwatch, which I recommend in general; and in specific, I recommend their feature article on homeopathy. The author, Stephen Barrett, is a retired M.D., a man of impressive scientific credentials, and a fellow of CSICOP. All the details above (except the story about the martini drinker) are excerpted from Dr. Barrett's excellent feature article; please go and read all of it. And don't, if you ever did, pay the prices charged for what is effectively a small bottle of water.

Oh, and the "evidence of wonderful results"? Just remember, double blind studies have shown that the placebo effect, from a sugar pill, can produce a recovery rate in the 30-40% range. Homeopathic remedies are placebos, nothing more.

I have filed a (signed) comment card with my gym suggesting that it was irresponsible of them to include this suggestion in their list.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Crummy Raptors

I saw something very odd, leaving work the other day; odd to me at least. The data center where I work has broad expanses of lawn, punctuated with willow trees (which I always thought were an unreasonable choice for a water-challenged climate); it also has little decorative fountains with ponds. The willows are always full of birds, including crows, which have become more common in the last few years; and we've recently had a pair of mallard ducks enjoying the lawns.

I saw a crow attacking a smaller bird; and not very efficiently, either. I was maybe 40 feet from all this and couldn't see details clearly; but the smaller bird seemed to be all white (unusual in a wild bird); it looked like a parakeet. It was about that size and had sort of a rounded silhouette; it was walking along the lip of the fountain pool, peeping. The crow was standing on the lawn, several feet away, and as I watched, it flew over, pounced on the small bird, and picked it up in its beak. The crow carried the small bird, peeping wildly, to the lawn, and dropped it. The small bird seemed to be trying to defend itself (I'm anthropomorphizing wildly here) - it waved its wings at the crow, peeped wildly, and tried to scuttle away. The crow watched for a bit and then struck again. It looked like nothing so much as a cat toying with a mouse.

This sequence repeated itself three or four times while I watched. By then I had decided that I wasn't enjoying this very much, and in any case I had a train to catch and was already late. So I went on and didn't see the end.

I asked my husband about the incident later; he's not a birder as such, but he hikes and backpacks, and has seen a lot in the back country. He's the source of the phrase, "crummy raptors"; crows, he says, will try to be raptors but they aren't very good at it. They certainly aren't; an owl or a hawk would have killed that bird with one strike. I refuse to anthropomorphize to the point of thinking the crow was playing with the bird for fun; I assume it was trying to kill it with inadequate equipment.

The other thing that puzzles me is where the little white bird came from. I've never seen a bird like it anywhere near the data center. It almost looked like a released domestic bird. It met an unhappy end, wherever it came from.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


Anyone who has ever spent any time working in, or with, a nonprofit arts organization (a community chorus, a local theater group, etc.) knows that they are chronically short of funds. Their volunteer officers spend hours working on fundraising. I've been considering joining such a board, after I retire; and it's beginning to dawn on me what I may be letting myself in for.

My problem is, I hate fundraising. I hate asking people for money; it makes me actively uncomfortable. I dislike being asked for money; and when I don't like people to do something to me, I try to avoid doing it to them. This is called the Golden Rule. I even have trouble selling concert tickets, although I believe that our chorus is a talented performing group that produces excellent music; because I believe people have a right to decide what to do with their own Friday nights.

I wonder if I can persuade the group to let me do routine back office stuff, while somebody else goes out and hustles for funds. I'm happy to stuff envelopes. I'd enjoy working on the web site, or learning to use the sound equipment: anything but asking people to donate money.

Jon Corzine

I expressed my amazement in my last post, that Jon Corzine, the governor of New Jersey, should have been riding in a vehicle without a seat belt, which decision led to his current hospitalization. I find myself musing over this incident. We are told not to "blame the victim." In the case of a woman who has been raped, I fully agree. In Mr. Corzine's case, however, his current state of health is a direct result of a decision that he made, presumably, all by himself. I don't, he must have thought, need a seat belt for this short trip.

Jon Corzine is not a stupid man. He's been highly successful: a banker; an investment banker (believe me, not the same breed), the CEO of Goldman Sachs; a U.S. Senator. The only conclusion I can draw here is that he was convinced "it can't happen to me," even though he was riding in the front passenger seat, sometimes called "the death seat." The facts clearly indicate he was wrong.

Assigning blame is pointless; Mr. Corzine's present physical state is ample, possibly excessive, punishment for his lapse in judgment. I do wonder about the police driver of that vehicle, however. It's too bad he didn't have the cojones to make the simple statement, "I'm sorry, Governor, I can't start this car until everyone has buckled up." I regularly make that statement myself, when carrying passengers. Apparently he either didn't notice that his passenger wasn't secured, or didn't have the temerity to challenge him.

The latest ABC News article on the incident suggests that the vehicle's air bags may not have deployed. I'm not sure I believe that. This was Gov. Corzine's normal secure transport, chosen for protection. For all the jokes about New Jersey, one assumes the governor's security detail takes care of the car that protects his, and their, lives. But the Philadelphia Inquirer points out that the 2005 Suburban doesn't have side-impact air bags.

Whatever happened (and I'm sure we'll be reading follow-on articles for weeks yet), I've seldom seen such a clear case of cause and effect. It's not as though we haven't known for 50 years that seat belts protect passengers in a crash, even without air bags.

Friday, April 13, 2007


One of the reasons I haven't blogged this week is music: the Oakland Symphony Chorus is performing next Friday, and our director has scheduled extra rehearsals. Since I haven't retired yet, this brings the schedule down to eat, sleep, work, rehearse, and exercise if you can make time for it. Blogging does not make the cut.

The other reason I haven't blogged is the absolute overload of insanity in the news. I can not believe what's going on.

Don Imus calls a college women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos." (At least he made no references to "jungle bunnies.") Mr. Imus has apologized, and has lost his job. Some people have observed that when African American gangsta rappers use the same words in their offensive productions, nobody says boo, and they are perfectly right. If it's wrong for Imus to say it, it's wrong for NWA to say it (or whoever is hot this week). Or are we simply assuming that black rappers are inferior beings who can't be held to a civilized standard, which is even worse?

The governor of New Jersey, riding
in a police car to an interview between Imus and his targets, is seriously injured when the car swerves to avoid an out-of-control vehicle and crashes, because he isn't wearing a seat belt. There's a great public example for you. And in a police car; that's what floors me.

In other news, Paul Wolfowitz, of neoconservative fame, is about to be drummed out of his post at the World Bank because he arranged for his girlfriend to be posted to the State Department and given two outrageous raises. She now makes more money than the Secretary of State. It is doubtless unfair of me to feel that these are the homeliest two people I have ever seen pilloried for sex related peccadilloes. (I can't find a photo of both of them together to link, but just check the Google News files.) I don't think it's at all unfair of me to wonder why President Bush would appoint the man to head up an organization that "desperately needed shaking up", when even Wolfowitz' friends admit that "management was never his strong suit." (See David Sanger's article in the NY Times.)

And finally there is the astounding mess surrounding Karl Rove and the missing emails. Now, I support email for a living; and the amount of plain garbage flying around here is incredible. But the simple fact that the White House is trying to camouflage behind a barrage of possibly deleted emails, is that White House staff, including Rove, may have been using email accounts provided by the Republican National Committee for official government business. This violates the Presidential Records Act, which requires all official documents to be archived. I don't know if it violates the Hatch Act, which prohibits using government facilities for politicking; but it seems as if it should; the reverse behavior would. And the claim that Rove assumed that deleting email from his inbox did not delete it from the server is outrageous. I don't believe that Karl Rove gave one moment's thought to whether the server was archiving his deletes or not. I do believe he deleted emails he knew perfectly well should be archived.

Which brings me to a question I ask regularly. How many laws does this administration have to break before Congress realizes they are committing impeachable offenses?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Secret is Out

At last, I can blog about this. I've decided to retire. My last day of work will be June 30.

I've been sitting on this like a hen on an egg since the beginning of the year, when I stomped into the office intending to tell my boss I wanted to retire, and couldn't find him. It took 3 weeks for our schedules to mesh to the point that we were both in the office at the same time; and I refused to do this by email, or phone, or (God forbid) instant message (which is how an awful lot of work gets done around our office). Trouble is, there are people at work who know about my blog; so I couldn't even hint at it here until I had made the official announcement to the boss. And then, he wouldn't tell anybody until I had formally called the retirement people and started the process, and then come back and asked him, when are we going to tell other people. I wonder if he thought I'd change my mind if he gave me time to think about it. However, the immediate team has known for about a month now, and the word is beginning to spread to the rest of the department; so I can post it here for the amusement of my 3 readers.

I've been working for a living since March 1969; that's
38 years. With a few interruptions, of course: 8 months or so after the divorce in 1976; a month off between jobs in 1988; two 3 month sessions in 2001 and 2005 while I replaced one and then the other knee. The rest of the time, on the job: seventeen years as a librarian; two years running a small mail-order surplus business; nineteen years as a systems programmer. In the office every day at 9 if I could manage it, 8 if I had to; I'm not really an early morning person, although I can do it. Home as early as I could manage, not always very early. Going to bed early so I could get enough sleep, which meant I never had any time to read books. I can nibble at magazines and stop when it gets late; but with books I want to follow the story all the way out, and the next thing I know it's 11:30, and my tomorrow is shot. I could argue that I'm retiring so I can catch up on my sleep, I never seem to get enough; I'm tired now, my eyes are scratchy.

Soon, now, I get to answer the Great Question: who am I when I'm not working? As Satchel Paige might have said, who would you be if you didn't know who you was? If you think about this even a little bit, you realize how much we define ourselves by what we do for a living. I read a book or article once, I forget where; but someone was comparing the English and the Americans, and they said that when an Englishman wants to know who you are, he asks what your family is, and when an American wants to know who you are, he asks what you do. I've been a technician, a good one if I say so myself, for a long time now; what do I do next? "Retired" is an acceptable description for "what do I do", but it's sort of like, "out of here" - it isn't a destination.

I began to come to terms with this when I realized that what I really do next, is to figure out what to do next. It's time to reinvent myself again. The majority of those 38 years have been spent "working for the man" - for companies with a bottom line, mainly in the financial industry. Yes, even the library work: Google "Special Libraries Association" to see what kind of library job I had. (And imagine telling your accountant boss, in 1976 or so, that you were attending an SLA meeting after work...) I still don't know what I want to do next, but I have a list of possibilities, and not one of them involves working for anybody who makes a profit. I don't hate people who try to make a profit; I just want to try something else.