Monday, February 23, 2009

This Could've Been Costanza's Chance at "Fatherhood"

THIS PARAGRAPH IS BURIED in the instructions for every American's favorite government publication, for Form 1040:
Kidnapped child. If your child is presumed by law enforcement authorities to have been kidnapped by someone who is not a family, you may be able to take the child into account in determining your eligibility for head of household or qualifying widow(er) filing status, the deduction for dependents, child tax credit, and the earned income credit (EIC). For details, see Pub. 501 (Pub. 596 for the EIC).
One imagines master liar George Costanza, scheming somehow to ameliorate a hideous tax burden, stumbling across this paragraph, then crafting a plan so untouchable by anyone with an even partially functioning morality gland that even Newman is horrified (though tempted to resort to blackmail).

Whether this would require one of the previously seen children on the show — from the morbidly ugly baby that nauseates Jerry out in the Hamptons, to the hyperactive kid Elaine found herself roped into sitting, or even Mickey the Midget reprising his role as a stand-in — would be a matter for the writers to craft into some sort of tidy, self-referential knot.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Continued Worry Over Insurgent 'Swarm' Attacks

A NEW YORK TIMES OP-ED today reminded me of the ongoing debate on the part of military forces over the growing effectiveness of "swarm" attacks — use of multiple, expendable attackers against a far larger foe to evade, degrade, and overwhelm its defenses — against peacekeeping forces designed to face similar-scale enemies. It also reminded me of previous coverage this issue has received right here.

Whereas the Iranian incident I cited a year ago eerily echoed a 2002 Navy wargame result, the current article, by author and Naval Postgraduate School instructor John Arquilla, takes as its points of departure two land assaults: the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 and last week's trio of government-ministry suicide attacks in Kabul. He fits these into a pattern that includes multiple al Qaeda actions since (and, in his thesis, including) 9/11. We've heard repeated warnings from commentators about the vulnerability of our industrial, commercial, and transportation hubs to attack from a team of guerrillas, small enough to evade the intelligence and counterterrorism hierarchies we've enhanced since 2001. Arquilla's point: We rightly ought to anticipate a swarm of such assaults.

How to counter such a nebulous foe? Arquilla credits use of smaller, widely distributed military strongpoints across Iraq with the recent drop in violence there. Our police forces would fulfill this role here, in similarly deployed "counterterrorism posts," along with agreements between state officials and the feds to ensure that if a situation requires the National Guard, arrangements for its deployment would be smoother than those that bollixed the Katrina response. He also argues that "Reserve and National Guard units should train and field many more units able to take on small teams of terrorist gunmen and bombers. Think of them as latter-day Minutemen."

I would want some clarification on this last point. At what point in the scale of a swarm attack, or the nature of the target, do we decide we need the Guard? A Mumbai-style action at the Mall of America? Pipe bombs along the parade route at Mardi Gras? Six simultaneous bank robberies in the suburbs of Denver? Perhaps the desire is to ensure a quick response in those areas of the country that lack the SWAT and counterterrorism forces and rapid-deployment capabilities America's major cities have developed, often with post-9/11 federal funding. Local communities often found it difficult to fit the mandate of these Washington dollars with their perceived terror threat (I believe Fahrenheit 9/11 brought this sort of thing to light).

If we want to defeat swarms, we have to assess and cater to local needs, and not impose a blanket defense plan across the entire United States. I think assigning SWAT-like duties to Reserve and Guard units — both straining as it is against the American national-disaster cycle and the demands of two wars — would lack the necessary nuance. The "clear rules in advance for using military forces in a counterterrorist role" that Arquilla cites ought to be used to define the needs of each area considered vulnerable across the land. Major farmlands might require local police to work more closely with the community airports more common away from big cities, to catch possible crop saboteurs via background checks of new pilots. Do the chemical plants and refineries from Edgewater to Elizabeth need to improve their grounds access? Maybe the police could set up a substation near critical sites if their station houses haven't already acquired CBW/hazmat gear and set up evacuation plans.

State and municipal police forces already have the distribution and intimate knowledge of their communities to sense something is amiss. It's their sensitivity we ought to enhance, rather than refocusing the rightly broader purview of domestic military forces. And always within the bounds and penumbra of the Fourth Amendment. Safety from clouds of nimble attackers means little if we're watching through the windows of our figurative cells.

Counterterrorism and national security planners play a cold game of math when judging the cost and effectiveness of responses to threats, versus the probability that such threats will manifest or even take the forms our defenses anticipate. Innovative tactics like agile swarms are the stuff of planners' nightmares. Arquilla is smart to highlight the expanded danger that swarm attacks could represent to the target-rich environment that a free and open society like ours presents. With some definition of role, his plan to apply the lessons of Iraq to America — via our existing police hierarchy — could be a minor investment, compared to the crippling catch-up cost that responding to an American Mumbai could incur. We would have to walk a thin line between effective defense and personal freedom, between concrete effectiveness and Schneier-style security theater, to ensure its success.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

You Have Died of Dysentery Author Alterations

WHILE BURNING THROUGH SEASON ONE of HBO's mighty fine cowboys 'n' profanity epic Deadwood, I ran into a couple of sequences (mild spoilers ahead) that would bring a laugh to any editor who has had to deal with too many anxious cooks eager to season the broth—or a typesetter whose constituents have to tinker when you're straining at the bit to go to press.

Smallpox has come to the gold-rush camp of Deadwood, and the town's leading business interests —including saloon owner and whoremaster, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane); his rival in the whiskey and flesh trades, Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe); and hotel manager/Swearengen underling E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) — have pooled their funds to send out missions for vaccine and establish a quarantine tent. The next bullet point on their plan is to place a story in the camp's daily broadsheet to forestall panic by portraying them as being one step ahead of the outbreak.

This brings the three suddenly civic-minded rogues to the office of the Deadwood Pioneer, helping its reporter, editor, and publisher, A.W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones) write the feel-good piece that will keep the booze-, tail-, and gamble-happy prospectors who line their pockets from dropping their sieves and vamoosing.

Merrick, his fingers glossy with ink, reads back the last sentence: "'Thanks also to the aforementioned merchants, the vaccine will be distributed gratis.'"

Al: "'Free gratis.'"

Merrick: "'Free gratis' is a redundancy."

[Al looks askance at Sy and E.B.]

E.B.: "Does that mean, 'repeats itself'?"

[Merrick nods.]

Al: "Then leave 'gratis' out."

Merrick [writing]: "What luck for me, Al, that you have such a keen editorial sense. 'Free.' 'Distributed free.' Period. It will take me some time to reset the type—"

Al: "Yeah, hurry up!"

You just can't move fast enough for some clients.

Later that day, as Merrick prints the first proof, Sy, Al, and E.B. are there to greet it. They look on expectantly and a bit mystified as Merrick peels a page off the type.

Merrick [inspects the first page]; "Gentlemen—"

Al: "Come on, let's see it!" [snatches it away]

Merrick: "Or should I say, my fellow authors?"

[Said authors zero in on the article as Merrick watches.]

Al: "I think maybe it should have a question mark: 'The Plague in Deadwood?'"

Merrick: "The type is set. You're reading the definitive edition."

Al [looks at other two, shrugs]: "Let's run it."

Of course, not all audiences are appreciative of the careful choices an editorial team makes in selecting the mot juste:

Al [that night, reading the paper in his saloon while his flunky, Dan Dority, looks on]: "Merrick! Merrick wanted to put here, 'Gratis.' Now is the idea to inform your readers, or to make them feel like a fucking dunce? Huh? I had to put in 'free.'"

Dan: "I don't see why the fuck he doesn't have news of the baseball."

Guys. Always with the sports pages.

All images © Home Box Office, Inc.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Freelancing: Setting Structure and My First Job

IT’S BEEN JUST OVER ONE MONTH since my layoff, and lest my silence lead one to think I’d joined the French Foreign Legion, here’s an update on how I’ve fared since the beginning of the year:
  • I’m more determined than earlier this month to build a freelancing business. Michelle Goodman’s My So-Called Freelance Life, Marci Alboher’s Shifting Careers blog archives, and other sources have been most inspirational in deciding to give this a go. I am hopeful that I’ll be able to find the work in my areas of expertise that companies have eliminated from their full-time payrolls, but which they may suddenly realize they still need someone to do. Don’t believe me? That’s how I got my first gig:
  • I was contacted by my former boss during the first full week of January to gauge my interest in updating and maintaining the magazine’s website, and preparing an email newsletter from the Web content, as I’d done while employed, for an hourly rate. Why, yes, I was. Might be a semi-steady gig: Last time they got rid of a permanent in-house person who did the Web updates, they used a freelancer for 8 months until I was hired. Even if they do hire someone out in Central City to perform my editorial tasks, they probably won't take the Web work back instantly. The top dog in my old group seems to be of the mindset that if it's getting done well without babysitting and all it costs is a check each month, let it roll. I'm happy to conform to this preference.
  • To build my writing habit and skill, I have raised the game on my blog-posting 2007 Lenten experiment and have been writing 1,000 words or more per day. No specific focus or purpose, just as much free-writing as it takes to reach a grand each morning. If I’m to write professionally, I need to be able to reach the right words as soon as I can and hit those topic and deadline targets. Might as well establish the discipline when my days have a bit of time in them. But I’m acting to change that.
  • As I’d done while full time, I’ve created work-done and work-to-do lists. Along with my blotter calendar — which I bought shortly after New Year’s because during that post-illness chunk of December, I’d lost track of days — it’s helped me maintain structure. I deliberately loaded my first to-do list with as many brainstormed ideas as I could, just to see how well I could perform these tasks on a self-directed schedule. Midweek, I received the first bit of freelance work from my last job, so quite a number of them were juked forward to this week. No matter, the ideas are still good. The main goal, and habit, I’m looking to reach here is to create measurable metrics for the effort I put into finding work. It’s the exact same principle the career counseling I’d gotten after the first layoff: Tally all of your contacts each week by mode and effectiveness to see what’s working. No more gold in a particular stream? Find a new spot to pan. (Heh — I’ve been watching Deadwood as a nightly snack after my labors are done. Great right from the first episode. Floridly profane and obscene. Awesome.)
  • Less related to work, but more vital: Despite today’s ugly number (Monday after dinner with the parents and football snacking is always a bit of a retracement), I’ve continued to progress along the 30 x 40 exercise and fat-loss plan. I spent 3 days last week below 220, bottoming out at 218.5 (from 228 last birthday and 231.5 on 1/1/08) and not because of a damn fever this time. I rebuilt the muscle I’d lost while sick, and my nutrition has been strong. I need to lose about a pound a week now to keep pace (vs. .57/week when I began). However, even with no job and a snarl with the NJ unemployment people on the release of funds, I haven’t had the temptation to eat crap due to stress as I did while at the last job. And of course there’s no birthday or holiday food lying three steps away from my cube, waiting for me to succumb in a fit of frustration with the bullshit raining down. I’ve got a lot of work to do, but the rewards are evident when I can run up a flight of stairs, get out of my car without using a manual support at all, or even leap out of bed without staggering around hunched over. As with the freelance jobs and improving my writing, diligence is its own reward. (As is not repeating last March’s expedition to the fucking hospital.)
  • I’m weighing the decision to create a new blog or website under my real name from which to market myself and post relevant writing on the topic. I’m competent at Blogger, but I’ve never bought a domain name, fiddled with WordPress plug-ins (I’m leaning toward that platform), and the like. There are surely guides for all of this sort of thing. If I get this rolling, I’ll let you all know where to go. Not sure if I’d continue here, but the sadness of moving from this blog to the next will be tempered into fondness should the new one succeed in helping my business and soul both grow.
  • Last, I came to a conclusion last Friday, which I shared with my pal Amy, a longtime freelance editor, that despite only having one client, and not having received any unemployment relief yet, and facing a huge task of building a business from scratch during a recession, I was nonetheless happier sitting there, laboring away on my first billable hours, than I’d been back at the last company in months. There may indeed be a full-time job where I can get this same sense of satisfaction. While I have the chance, while I have a couple of safety nets and reserves in the middle of this shitty economy to get me through, I ought to take one bold shot at building something that preserves that feeling I described to Amy and makes it part of my every working day.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Layoff: Four Hours and Counting

I WAS LAID OFF two weeks ago today. Illness during Christmas week, and catching up with missed Christmas duties since then, kept me from detailing what I'd alluded to in the P.S. of my last post. There's not much to tell. About half of the people in my office got the immediate gate, and the rest will need to make a decision between one of two offices to begin using, because our office will completely close. In my specific case, I had the choice of following my job to Central City, as did the art staff back in April, or leaving that day. I chose the latter.

I'd seen folks clustering since the morning, chatting among themselves away from their desks, an unnatural silence filling the office such as I hadn't heard since after my last layoff. The management and HR pulled individuals into conference rooms or their offices for The Talk, but very little hard data was out there for the taking. Once I heard that one of the executives involved with my publication had been cut that morning, I knew we were all in play, and I made some effort to clean links and cookies off my computer. (I also drove home to get some end-of-year reimbursement forms so I could send them off to HR central before the end, if it was not long in coming. Faxing them off as folks were being told they were done gave my chore an unconsciously Mission: Impossible feel.)

In the early afternoon, I got the lecture. At least it came from the head of the division and not some ten-percenter sent in only to fire folks. I chose the departure option; no way was I following a job in a stumbling industry into the core of the Recession Belt. I reviewed some paperwork, got the standard info on COBRA and 401(k) follow-up, and the like. I'd gotten four months at the last place to wind down the department and settle ongoing projects. Here, I was getting four hours.

I spent the rest of the day in an adrenalized rush, excited and somewhat giddy. Fellow employees were reacting with shock, shuffling around their cubes in a funereal daze. Not me. As much as I knew that there was no job next morning, and that I was stepping out the door into the shittiest economic conditions in years, I felt, for the first time in months, filled with direction . . . even if it was out. This ought to tell you what I've left less than fully spoken in these posts: that I was feeling greatly unsatisfied with the job. I'd held back from blathering about things along these lines, or at least I think I have, because nobody wants to read about someone whining about something as basically self-inflicted as a bad job. (I'd tried reading Waiter Rant a week before the layoff, realized I'd basically be reading page after page of someone bitching about his gainful employment, in a city swarming with wait-staff positions, in one of the most fertile cities for business incubation in the country — a First World country, mind you — and decided the author could go fuck himself sideways.)

I filled my work bags and a couple of plastic bags with what little personal materiel I kept at my desk. You can tell the July departure of the art staff led me to refrain from personalizing the cube all that much. Midway through this, my managing editor called me to find out what was happening at my office. I explained to him I'd been told either I could follow my job out to his office or leave, that I had regretfully chosen the latter, and that I had through the end of the day to leave. My own boss had no idea I had been laid off. Never mind that the magazine was due to go to press in four days, or that we were down one person right now due to illness and would lose a second through the end of the production cycle due to her taking accumulated vacation time.

But that was their problem now. I told him I'd call my immediate supervisor the next day to let him know what he needed to know about my ongoing labors, bid him a sincere thanks for everything and a "see you later" rather than a "goodbye," and completed my packing. I tracked down the folks I wanted to remain in touch with, gave them one of my business cards, told them I was on LinkedIn and Facebook, and, my work there finally done, I left about a half hour before my usual quitting time.

I had plans to meet up with my friend Steve that night, and so he became the first person to get the scoop. I can't describe myself as being upset or scared by the reality of my situation. Indeed, when I arrived at Paramus Park Mall to meet him, I filled my lungs with the near-winter night air, and it felt just as invigorating as it had that morning. After dinner, I returned home and filled my parents in on the layoff, again, getting through the news with no emotion other than continued exhilaration.

The next morning, I sent a note around to everyone with the full scoop. (I'd already told Steve, and emailed Felix to tell Len, that my work email was kaput, so there was no reason to include my work address in the usual Friday e-nanigans that day.) At this point, it's probably easier to quote myself:
After visiting NJ Unemployment (if the state's former financial-industry employees have left me anything), I will start figuring out the next step, and whether it even ought to involve a boss or an office. Or even publishing in the traditional sense. It's best to entertain all possibilities. There are a lot of companies and people who need words written or edited but who don't work anywhere near publishing. And the industry is reacting to the recession like a scared turtle, cutting editorial and management jobs (the staff-based design ones began disappearing in the mid-00s) and even declining to buy new manuscripts or risk starting projects in 2009. Relying on a publishing house for the chance to develop and advance over a lifetime, or even a couple of years, no longer seems realistic. I may be better served by finding those who need my talents across a wider range of opportunities, or even just outside the areas of publishing where I've already done work (psychology, medicine, legal/tax/accounting, etc.), in both cases as a freelancer.
I ended this note by saying I planned to begin this quest after taking Christmas Week off. I hadn't had a significant break since June, and it had been a bloody long time, it seemed, since I'd seen Manhattan's holiday finery.

Circumstance would dictate otherwise. What began as a hacking cough over the course of the Monday before Christmas turned into a feverish night of restless nonsleep, and then two days of 102–103º fever that climaxed with my heroic dad dragging my chill-wracked ass to my doctor. My Christmas Eve miracle turned out to be getting a last-minute appointment due to a cancellation. I hated to expose Dad (or my mom, through him) to this flu-like whateverthefuck, but by Wednesday morning I could barely talk or think due to dehydration and fever. When my temperature gets that high, I stand a serious risk of passing out while walking or trying to stand. Couldn't afford to have this happen while driving. The choice was 911 or a hand from Dad.

Fortunately, I managed to down a smoothie before the appointment, and the hydration, berries, and banana helped flood my system with nutrition and water. The doc prescribed antibiotics, and ruled out pneumonia or bronchitis. The downside was that I had to skip Christmas, my first missed one since birth.

It was on Christmas that the fever made its first clear retreat, and my thoughts began to return to the job situation. I had been given, by my friends Teresa and Dan, My So-Called Freelance Life, a guide to making the jump into self-employment, which I'd added to my Amazon Wish List after seeing author Michelle Goodman's guest post on the frequently useful — and cancelled, foolishly, by the New York TimesShifting Careers blog. Naturally, I'll be digging into that book, and Marci Alboher's blog archives, quite intently now. I still have the career-development/job hunting material from the service my last employer had provided to us after that layoff. If I'm truly going to build a freelance career, now's the time to begin researching the ups and downs.

And that, for now, is basically it. More news here on the next step as I develop a sense of what it might be. Very exciting.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

I Can Feel the Heat Closing In*

BACK IN APRIL, I REPORTED that several of my coworkers were told that their jobs were moving to the Central City office. Their choice: Follow them or accept a departure package. None chose the former.

With the continued decay of the economy, I anticipated more of this, especially with flat-out layoffs last year at this time. Sadly, I was right: This Monday, during our weekly conference call among the sales, editorial, and production folks under our particular publishing capo, we learned that staff had been cut from that last group, including two managers.

Worse, my immediate boss out in Central City confidentially passed the word along to me yesterday that another whole office got the same follow-your-job-or-leave offer as mine did in April. This would involve our publisher, who runs two other publications in addition to mine; his wife, P, who has starred in these pages in the past as my pub's past managing editor; and at least three or four other folks who work for them. They all have multiple ties to their locales, and if this story is accurate, I'd bet green money they won't choose to move.

This is terribly unfortunate, because the publisher is a gracious and diplomatic man who also works the sales end of things, and who respects the balance that advertising and editorial have to achieve so one isn't influenced by the other. And P is a fanatically hard worker who, despite my bitching during late '07 and early '08 as the old staff left, was always ready to set aside her towering workload to help when folks got swamped.

I'll find out more today or tomorrow. Rumors about cuts closer to home are circulating, too. My cube neighbor believes the HR head is making rounds about the company's offices this week, to climax with cuts in our office this Friday. I'm more curious than worried; maybe concerned is a more accurate term. I survived the first layoff, and although I know I won't get as much of a settlement this time around due to my shorter tenure (if I even get anything), I know it won't be the end of the world . . . just the end of that particular source of free office supplies.

*Thank you, Mister Burroughs.

P.S. My cube neighbor was one day off. Out on Thursday. Full details to follow here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Obama Blinded ME! With SCIENCE!!

COULD THIS OBAMA CABINET NEWS signify a return of respect for science to the Executive Branch? I speak of the President-elect's selection of Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Chu as prospective Secretary of Department of Energy. Not a political goon like Spencer Abraham or Bill Richardson, or a power-industry hack like Hazel O'Leary, but a SCIENTIST! The man has worked with LASERS and ATOMS, people. ATOMMMMMSSS!!!

Seriously, it's refreshing to see a representative of the sciences ascend to such a post. It was a tooth-eroding grind to listen to the contortions of logic that the Bush Administration put forth to avoid admitting that global warming could pose a threat, or that destroying the landscape for a few years' worth of resources would be a good tradeoff. Hard decisions on energy need to be made in the next four years, and Dr. Chu's authority as a Nobel Prize winner ought to count for something when he cajoles a reluctant Congress to fund alternative energy projects . . . especially with crude oil back down to far more reasonable levels. He'll have to keep Congress focused on the long game, not just the temporary comfort of a cheaper gallon of gasoline. With that task and all others, I wish him all the luck in the world.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

High Expectations for Chelsea's High Line

I USED TO WORK VERY CLOSE to the High Line, the venerable elevated railway that used to serve industries along the West Side of Manhattan. I had been dimly aware, as the involuntary end of my employment there approached, of efforts to transform the route into a park. There was a ceremony at the High Line in '07, before I left that job, presumably to celebrate the start of restorative work or the unveiling of plans, I don't recall exactly which. But the city was definitely moving forward in getting it ready to share with the people at large.

I was reminded of these efforts by a story in today's New York Times on the continuing work on the Line, as well as real estate projects around it, in what writer Amy Cortese calls "some of the most ambitious development in the city in years." In the middle of a fierce economic downturn, New York City is forging ahead with a public-works project to rededicate a utility route to civic good. Well done.

I used to walk around the High Line neighborhood during idle times at that job, soaking in the old architecture, marveling at the cobblestones still paving the streets in some spots of the Meatpacking District, admiring the boutiques and galleries that inhabit former commercial spaces. As time and developers claim the decades-old brick-and-iron edifices that face Jersey, the chance to glimpse them from the height of the High Line is one I greatly anticipate.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mid-Thanksgiving Weekend Update (not with Dennis Miller)

SO FAR, I'M HALFWAY THROUGH the four days of 0ur American binge-weekend of commerce and calories — and occasional thankfulness — and I've only indulged in half of that equation. The vast bulk of Thursday was spent over at my parents' house: helping Mom with food prep, burrowing with my Dad through dips and a cheese ball while watching two subpar football games, and tapping out an abortive blog post that ended up in the scraps pile with the other pieces of half-baked TextEdit compost. Also, I did laundry. The most effective multitasking I've done all week. The weather was cool, but not painfully so, and the skies clear and favorable to both travelers and Macy's parade-goers alike. Weather's not usually a hitch for a Thanksgiving journey to my parents'; they live one town away, a distance I could walk if pressed. And ought to have, considering the amount of full-fat dairy products alone that my Dad and I packed away.

I drifted home happy to have shared another Turkey Day with my parents, and crashed early under the sedative influence of a lovingly prepared meal. I didn't even get the chance to read. Just out like a light. I'd like to say that not having to go into work the next day accelerated my drop into the lotus-perfumed arms of Morpheus, but that's a whole other post or series of same.

I made a weak try at rising early to hit the gym on Friday morning. Wasn't gonna happen. I was still paying a sleep debt from a very late Wednesday night at the poker game, and I knew if I didn't pay it off then, I'd drag my sleep–wake cycle far off kilter over the rest of the weekend, and firmly screw myself Monday morning. Why fight nature? I set the clock a couple of hours forward, wound up awakening about 15 minutes before it anyway, and got my ass in gear.

After a couple of hours' cleaning in preparation for the Christmas party I'll host a week from today, I mixed up a protein-berry smoothie and rolled over to the gym shortly before noon. I'd come to the conclusion that hitting the gym first thing in the morning, without any sort of meal beforehand, was the reason why I'd been losing steam short of a session's end. I'd also noticed that the smoothie, when consumed after a workout, tended to make me sleepy. I blame this on the blizzard of simple carbs in the smoothie: nearly a cup of frozen berries, a banana, and a quarter-cup of 100% cranberry juice, to say nothing of what might be in the two scoops of protein powder (actually, I have this number: 6 g carbs).

This was particularly the case after a gym visit in which I'd just been on a treadmill or elliptical trainer for a half-hour, with no major muscle-tissue teardown. I'd be getting dressed for work after downing this and feel like getting back into bed. And I'd read a study recently that declared immediate post-workout nutrition to be counterproductive for all except competitive athletes, powerlifters, and other such folks who routinely burn 2,000 calories per gym trip. Not me by a longshot.

So I decided to compromise and bring the smoothie with me to drink during a workout. This has been working much better, and I don't get to work thinking I need a Costanza drawer in my desk for a nap. This is what I did yesterday, and I teetered into the gym, bag and keys (with membership tag) in one hand, big plastic cup brimming with purple sludge in the other, hoping the path to the squat rack was clear.

Usually I lift weights first thing in the morning, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, as close to the opening of the facility as I can get.

Now, this is more or less the type of squat rack we have at the gym:
Rather than use this for movements like squats, overhead shoulder presses, deadlifts, and other compound exercises during which you might want a nice, sturdy piece of steel onto which to drop the weight on a final, exhausting set, some speciments will use the heavy-duty bar (the Olympic bar that you find on these things alone weighs 45 lb.) to do curls. Without any other weight. While folks itching to squat grit their teeth and wait for this jerkass to be done. Simplest solution, as with many sources of stress in life, is avoidance. Getting into the gym at the open accomplishes this.

Not so yesterday. I feared that, at noontime on a weekday with most folks home from work, I'd run upstairs to the weight floor to find the joint jammed with bleary-eyed Thanksgiving binge victims expiating their guilt one curl at a time (of course, in the squat rack). I'd brought my iPod just in case I had to call an audible and burn 30 minutes on a piece of aerobic equipment while the scrum upstairs emptied out, though my schedule had Friday as a weight-training day, and I prefer to hold to the schedule if at all possible.

But I was lucky; the many cars in the parking lot belonged to the folks populating the treadmills and trainers, not the Cybex or Hammer Strength machines upstairs . . . and what few folks were busying themselves with their muscles were nowhere near the squat rack. Perfect.

November was a spotty month for me. I hit a low in job satisfaction, and also caught a cold, both of which screwed up my gym attendance, nutrition, and weight loss. But I found my footing again this last weekend, and thus far I'd been putting up good numbers. Even when your ass is dragging, I've found, if you can just keep going back to the gym for a couple of down days, it'll be a lot easier to get fully back into a program when your health returns or a dark mood passes. (And exercise is itself a fine antidepressant.) The squat is the foundation of the routine I do (the 5x5 beginner's routine), and after stalling out at 45 lb. of plates on the bar (for a total of 90 lb.), I'd been feeling strong enough to continue the advancement.

This week was fantastic. I broke through the 45-lb. weight to do five sets of five with 50 lb. on Monday. I ate more carefully and got more and better sleep. Wednesday morning, I entered the century club by adding 55 lb. to the 45-lb. bar, with which I was again able to hit the specified five sets of five reps. The kicker was yesterday, when, despite the Thursday binge, I racked up 60 lb., and still managed to complete final set with good form, albeit quite slowly. Even though I hit a temporary wall on the bench press later that day, I was still happy to have inched forward with the foundation exercise of the Stronglifts routine. Not sure if I can exceed that on Monday, but I'll have had two rest days to heal and prepare. So cross your fingers.

I returned to my parents' house for dinner that night, but I didn't go anywhere near a mall. I used to go out on Black Fridays. Not anymore. I don't need anything like that level of stress. People go feral that day and are best handled at the length of a cattle prod. Nothing I might need isn't already available elsewhere, either within walking distance of my apartment, or via the Web. Aside from the short trips to the gym and my parents' place, I put few miles on the car, or on my mental odometer.

Today, I've got a list of items I can find at local strip malls or grocery stores, rather than the mega-palaces of commerce straining at their rivets in Paramus. These are mostly things I need for the party next weekend: a nice scented soap, a few extra Pottery Barn mugs f0r my caffeine-craving guests, a couple of the giftcards I'll need for the grab bag I always have at the affair, and the envelopes in which I'll place 'em. I can even dodge the parking problem, because one of these places is within walking distance of my workplace, so I can stash the car and tromp down to the stores without jockeying with folks over spots. Insane.

That's how things stand as we cruise toward noon on Saturday, as a clear blue sky filters through the evergreens outside my window, and retailers gnaw the nails from their fingers hoping for sales salvation this weekend. I may venture over to the gym for a bit of treadmill and college football, before ticking off some more to-do's from the party prep list. A haircut would also be a good idea, which would take me no further than crossing the street outside that selfsame window. Other than that, and a bundle of leftovers awaiting me in the fridge, I plan to take the second half of this weekend at a delightfully slow pace.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Street Finds Its Own Uses for Things

WILLIAM GIBSON'S SUMMARY APHORISM of the cyberpunk ethic is proven to be true in the present with each passing day. News has filtered down, from the rustling pages of academe to the popular media, that athletes are experimenting with that Maginot Line of flagging virility, Viagra, to boost performance in other places than the sack. Because the drug relaxes blood vessels and thus permits enhanced blood flow, athletes reason that this will allow more oxygenated blood to reach muscles — a boon when competing far above sea level.

Some in the world of competitive sport never stop trying to find the performance magic bullet, no matter how small the effect, preferably an undetectable one, and sometimes one that's actually safe to take. Viagra originated as a solution to pulmonary hypertension, but its mode of action — via nitric oxide on blood vessels — is not restricted to the lungs. (Just ask Bob Dole or Ron Jeremy.) Over-the-counter nutritional supplements have used nitric oxide to increase blood flow to muscles for some time, presumably in subclinical doses relative to a Viagra pill.

So my question is, who first came up with the idea to apply a prescription dose of nitric oxide to an otherwise healthy person? Not all athletes fit the jock stereotype. The elite know very well what their food and nutritional supplements contain and do to their systems, and rightly so for such an investment of time, money, and effort. On the college or even high school level, however, I wonder if coaching staffs or even parents might be way these pills arrive in the players' hands. And for professional players, it's easy to say the guy needed the Viagra for its traditional use. Think how much is at stake. What's the off chance of a side effect or being found out compared with getting into a bowl game or the playoffs?

Just goes to show you that one person's finished product is another's prototype.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I'm Not Riding With This Valkyrie

I REREAD WILLIAM SHIRER'S The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich every year. Compelling, conclusive, and frightening, it reminds me of the extremes to which humans can push themselves. Not just in evil, but in resisting it. Possibly the most riveting story in the massive book is that of Operation Valkyrie, the failed, final, and most nearly successful assassination and coup attempt against Adolf Hitler. Its leader and direct instigator: Lt. Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a count and General Staff member, who smuggled the bomb into Hitler's conference room at the remote Wolf's Lair forward command center.

Despite being a Nazi and part of its war machine, von Stauffenberg has been memorialized in Germany for his attempt to decapitate the Third Reich. When plans for a movie of the July 20 plot were announced, it caught the interest of the German people, along with my own. I enjoyed Downfall (Der Untergang), the first German-language film to recreate the last days of the Bunker in Berlin, and as I said, I find the unfolding — and unraveling — of Valkyrie to be dramatic and tragic.

So I was hugely disappointed to learn, early on, that von Stauffenberg would be portayed in this American production by Mister Hollywood, Tom Cruise. Many Germans were appalled as well, though somewhat more for Cruise's Scientology, which is rightly viewed in Germany as the cult that it is.

Tonight, I saw a trailer for Valkyrie, and I lost any tiny shred of hope that I might be able to soldier through in the hopes of watching the July 20 drama on screen no matter who was playing the Count. He didn't even speak with a British accent, which was often the default for American and British actors who needed to play WWII Germans without embarrasing themselves by speaking in ersatz Deutsch. Nope, what we've got coming out of Cruise, dressed in his General Staff uniform and flanked by a thousand fluttering Reich banners, is pure Cruise-ish American. I'd fully expect Cruise's von Stauffenberg to be confronted, during his final hour, by an injured and vengeful Hitler, yelling, "Sie können die Wahrheit nicht annehmen!" Whatever disbelief I might have been able to suspend came crashing down like the Valkyrie plot itself.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Why I'm So Alone in This World

SIMPLE REASON. I'm reading Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 11, 2001, by Steve Coll. It's said to be on President-elect Barack Obama's nightstand these days, so I thought it worth checking out. Thus far it very much has been. Charlie Wilson, titular character of the recent book and film, is mentioned in the upcoming pages, according to the index, and I look forward to seeing whether my impression of him as an exacerbating cause of increased Islamist radicalism is based in any reality.

But here's the explanation for the header. The first chapter of the book recounts the 1979 siege of the American embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, by a huge mob of locals, inflamed by the same jihadist spirit that had just possessed students in Tehran to storm our embassy there and take both its staff, and the Carter presidency, hostage. The chapter begins when one American embassy worker is smoked out of his office by the mob when they torch the building. The revolutionaries rough him up, then drive him out of the embassy for a drumhead trial for crimes against the Prophet.

Am I the only one who finds irony in the captive American's last name: Putscher?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Royal Navy 2, Pirates Naught

FOLLOWING ON THE HEELS OF a report on NPR of the life of a Somali pirate — in which the reporter took considerable risk, and moral license, to interview one of the many seagoing thieves plaguing the critical sea lane through the Gulf of Aden — comes news that a British warship, aided by Russian vessels, finally took some hard action against these scum. From Wired Magazine's Danger Room blog:
For years, Somali pirates have terrorized the waters of East Africa, with only the occasional spasm of opposition. But now, NATO has begun to patrol the area in force. And the pirates are starting to get smacked back. On Tuesday, the British Royal Navy "repelled a pirate attack on a Danish cargo ship off the coast of Yemen, shooting dead two men," the BBC reports.
The pirates were given a chance to surrender, but after they fired small arms at the HMS Cumberland, the British sailors returned fire and dropped a pair of them.

Years ago, I recall reading a New York Times Sunday magazine article by Jack Hitt about modern-day pirates. I recall being surprised at how prevalent the problem had become. As evidenced by the first link in the quote above, Somalia's coast is now a hot zone for such crime.

I have no sympathies for the dead pirates, and I think it's about time such a clear signal was sent that this shit won't fly. One of the commenters to the article had the same thought I did: that the naval powers of the world should begin dispatching WW II–style Q-ships to begin throwing the Fear into these scum. I had an ambiguous reaction to the NPR report; though it was fascinating, I still felt like the world would've been better served had the story ended with the reporter emptying the pirate's skull with a shotgun. But that's a violation of journalistic trust, and let's face it, several of my favorite books were written by, or in collaboration with, Mafiosi. Still, if you look at the list of previous stories on the topic beneath the story behind the first link in the quote, this is clearly not a new problem, with over 100 incidents this year. Well, there are two pirates who won't be joining the next raid.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Obi-Wan Dances Back, Declares It To Be On

I'M NOT SO MUCH OF an ultra-orthodox Star Wars geek anymore that I can't do some creative speculation into the film. Used to be, though. Used to get indignant even at the thought of other science fiction franchises. The blinders eventually dropped off somewhere at the end of high school in 1987 when (a) while watching the original Star Trek to generate MST3K-style comebacks, I got into that show too; and (b) I began seeing the one girl who'd started hanging with me and my guy-friends, and her sister, in bathing suits more often, and my priorities realigned themselves somewhat. Some things just have a way of educatin' a man.

More jaded now than educated, I sometimes look back on that old film and wonder. Today it was Obi-Wan Kenobi's confrontation in the cantina with those two slags who threaten Luke. (Yes, I know these two slags' Extended Universe names. No, I am not going to use them.) A couple of months ago, I viewed Yojimbo, one of George Lucas's sources for Star Wars. Ben's rather one-sided bar fight had its birth in Yojimbo, right down to the severed arm. Toshiro Mifune walks away from that fight with a wry comment to the town coffin-maker about his services being needed. Obi-Wan, however, merely looks around grimly to ensure the fight is done, then snuffs the saber and helps Luke up off his ass.

I was thinking. Obi-Wan's no slouch as a Jedi Master. He's already Force-tricked a Stormtrooper into letting Luke and the Droids cruise through a DWI. Setting aside Lucas's hard-on to include scenes from like 10 Kurosawa and John Ford films in a two-hour skiffy romp, Ben easily could've used the Force on these two alien clowns and chilled their latex asses out before resuming his job interview with Chewie. The only two on-film Force-resistant creatures we'll meet — also on Tatooine, oddly enough — won't show up until later in the re-edit of Ep 4 (Jabba) and, years later, in the much-maligned Ep I (Watto). Everyone else? Fair game for the mind trick.

So that leaves two possibilities for why Ben didn't chose a softer way of resolving this conflict. First, he may have figured, we're going to be here for a while, and the longer we are, the greater the odds that Blondie over here is gonna step in shit with one of these freaks. I might as well make a statement now to disabuse them of the thought of fucking with us.

Second, and this is, if even less Jedi-like, my favorite. At this point, the details of Ben's 20-ish years of exile on Tatooine hadn't been frantically scribbled in yet by a million Extended Universe monkeys. (And me, in fact.) As far as we know, other than checking up on young Skywalker often enough for Luke to recognize his last name as that of a "strange old hermit," Ben hasn't been doing squadootch. Can't use the Force in any meaningful way; no sense in attracting the Emperor's attention, nor that of his chief flunky, whose midichlorian-packed kid happens to live down the road a piece. Tusken Raiders could be frightened off with a dime-store duck call, and he had nothing even a retarded Jawa would want to steal. Lonely days in the Jundland Wastes, endless nights under now-forbidden stars, a long damn way from a lifetime of adventure.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, hard-fighting General in the Clone Wars, wise and reserved Master on the Jedi Council, who bested two Sith Lords and a batshit four-armed kill-bot in combat during his prime, had a 20-year case of Force blueballs when he walked down those dusty steps into the cantina. When those two slapdicks got in Luke's face, it was like Ben's birthday and the Wookiee Life Day rolled into one bright gift.

Ben could've guided them away with a Force-ful suggestion. He didn't. He wanted that fight.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Networks Call Election for Obama

"And far away, as Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dûr was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.

"From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his stratagems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired. For they were forgotten. The whole mind and purpose of the Power that wielded them was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain."

Tolkien, The Return of the King

The Most Satisfying Thing I'll Do All Day . . .

. . . ASSUMING SCARLETT JOHANNSON AND SALMA HAYEK don't stop by without enough money for the pizza they ordered:

As important as an Obama/Biden victory is — which you may research further here and here if you're not convinced — far more important is that you do get out and vote for all the candidates and issues in your precinct. Throughout the prehistory and history of this country, millions died to win and defend the right that some will cast cynically aside today. It's not just that you lose your license to bitch about the result by doing so. It's that you do those who sacrificed their lives to provide you with that right a grave disservice.

So be a good citizen and vote. And to editorialize again, be a good American, and vote Obama.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Long-Distance Runners Linked by Radio

I DON'T RUN OR EVEN JOG, but I do appreciate the tradition of the New York Marathon. It highlights the role of the Five Boroughs as the place where people of the world can live, work, and even sweat side by side. Oddly, I prefer to monitor it over the radio, usually over WCBS 880. The unity of coverage—from course-side reporters, the traffic chopper, commentators at the start and finish, even CBS employees running the race—reminds me that there's a clear line of heritage between this teamwork and the global links that CBS established 70 years ago between correspondents across America and Europe to document the march of Nazism across the Continent.

We think of something like today's Marathon coverage as a routine link of technology, but whether it's a simple radio signal streaming through my little portable, a remote broadcast from the WFMU Record Fair, or a debate spanning three continents on NPR, I marvel at the phenomenon. Maybe that's why I prefer the audio coverage; like the Marathon, it's got a tradition and a heritage. Even amid Internet radio streams and increasing corporate concentration of frequency ownership, they still all stem from vibrations in the air and signals along the wire. It would be sad to overlook the wonder behind the technology.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

NYT: "We fear it will take years of forensic research to discover how many basic rights have been violated."

NEW YORK TIMES: Obama for President. Their endorsement praises Obama and buries both McCain and Bush/Cheney. The header of this post is one of the best nails they drive into the Bush coffin. Read it all.

Putting Hard Numbers on Soft Tissue

THIS BEING THE SEASON OF POLLS, I submitted myself to a survey yesterday, but the results won't be used to tar any political opponent. I had my annual office health screening, part of a half-day fair in which I also received my yearly flu shot. I might bitch about work here and there, but my company follows the wise course of providing free flu vaccine to all employees. What used to be a last-minute scramble while working in Manhattan and dashing home for a doctor's appointment or a spot on a hospital queue is now as simple as walking down the hall.

In addition, employees can also get their blood pressure, nonfasting blood glucose and cholesterol, and bodyfat percentage measured. Not having had a fasting read on these recently, I brought last year's nonfasting results with me to compare. The med-tech this time around didn't provide as much blood info as I got last year — no LDL or triglycerides — but my HDL improved (possibly kinked by the ground flaxseed I'd eaten with my oatmeal an hour earlier), and my glucose, though a little higher than in November 2007 (also probably from earlier meals, either the oatmeal or the frozen berries and yogurt in the smoothie I'd downed after my gym visit), was still in the normal range.

Unlike last year, we got a bodyfat reading. They had some sort of induction-based handle gadget we had to hold out in front of us in both hands. Beats someone advancing on me with a huge set of calipers. Based on the data the nurse programmed in, and the wacky Tesla vibe it picked up from my grip, I was told I have a bodyfat percentage of 25.7. Normal for men was listed in the booklet we'd been given as 15.1%–18%.

Today I finally thought, how many actual pounds was this? Using yesterday's weight of 221 lb., I'm carrying somewhere around 56 or 57 lb. of fat. Now, under the 30x40 plan of hitting 198 lb. by my next birthday, and assuming I lost only fat tissue while muscle mass stayed constant, I still need to drop 23 lb. That done, I'd still be carrying about 33.8 lb. of fat, which would represent a body mass percentage of 17—within that normal range.

Good to know, because if I keep eating and working out as I've been doing, I should definitely gain muscle. Not as much as I drop in fat, but judging from the blunt red number on the scale, the result on the chart might be a leveling off of weight loss as I shift my fat–muscle balance. Without grabbing another bodyfat-measuring machine, if the scale read the same while I exercised and ate correctly, I'd have to assume my fat percentage was dropping. This would keep me from getting despondent and engulfing 2 lb. of Whole Foods jellybeans over an evening.

Let's make no mistakes: I've still got a hefty gut. Nobody's gonna mistake me for skinny. And 23 lb. of fat tissue represents a caloric deficit of 80,500 kcal that I've got to realize — via better nutrition, regular and progressively tougher exercise, and maintaining more lean muscle tissue to rev my resting metabolism — over the coming months, which include Halloween, Thanksgiving, my holiday party, and the Xmas–New Year's Axis of Eating. But I can tell, when I shave, that there's less flesh on my face. I can encircle a wrist with the opposing hand with more slack in the grip. I can cover the walk between the apartment and library, across the town park, without getting winded. I put on a shirt last week that hadn't fit me in about 2 years; there was slack around my abs even when I sat. The tape measure says I've lost 3 in. of circumference there since mid-June.

With all of this evidence, each piece small but collectively quite telling, I've got no choice but to continue. Tomorrow I may only add 5 lb. to my squat weight, but all of this work in the gym and kitchen could add quality years to my life.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Boldly Going Into a Theater Near You

SOMETIME IN 2009, a new Star Trek movie will be released, focusing, surprisingly, on the crew of the late-60s incarnation of the show. Not news to anyone reading this blog, I'm sure. I hadn't really been following developments of the shoot, plot, or portrayals of the characters and Enterprise — and it's been a very long time since I had any emotional investment in how that's handled. In that, I am a minority on the Internet.

Judging by replies to stories about the film on Gawker Media science fiction blog io9, interest in these films, or in getting them right at least, is massive. Your average io9 post will pull 10 to 20 replies. Recent Star Trek posts, like this group of stills and this speculation over whether J.J. Abrams has made this film, in possible homage to the original show, deliberately cheesy, pulled four to five times that number of comments. Only posts about the Watchmen film (in which I very much do have an emotional investment) and The Sarah Connor Chronicles have come close. Posts regarding original science fiction creations, relying on no previous and adapted intellectual property, don't usually get this level of attention.

Nor the level of passionate argument. Rightly or not, opinions run hot on the Trek film. The Original Series raised the game of fandom to a new level. Write-in campaigns to save a TV show, fan-organized conventions, fan fiction (including what we'd come to know as slash fiction): Folks owe a debt to those whom Star Trek inspired to express their appreciation in these modes. But some fans have become unhealthily possessive of their experience with the show, and nitpick things that displease them or don't match up with what they saw on TV as children. This might be why these io9 threads are so long. I've come to believe nitpickers and aggressive geek-savants do this because they feel such a lack of control over their lives, they seize upon minutiae, bits of obscure knowledge they polish to a shine in their nervous grips, in their overcompensating attempts to wield dominion over something. And when something threatens this control, they lash out like startled cobras.

In May, I attended a cookout and gathering hosted at the home of my fine friends Dave and Julia. It was a rare summit of geekdom for our group, featuring folks usually several counties or states away. I commented to my buddy Len that I would reserve judgment on Heath Ledger's take on the Joker, comic fans' favorite Batman villain and no doubt a contender for top comic book (and comic movie-adaptation) bad guy. I'd been a bit skeptical about the first publicity image, but I'd decided I would reserve judgment and see how this Joker fit into his own skin. (Two viewings later, I'd say he all but burst the fuck out of it.)

For this film, and for the Watchmen film over which I'm still pessimistic, my best course is just that: See how this Enterprise fits into its shiny new skin, and what Abrams hopes to achieve by doing so. Try to understand why he chose this Spock, that Scotty, and why he leaves out what he chooses to omit. (He's not going to be able to name-check each little bit from TOS in 2 hours, much as we'd all like to see a salt-vampire-scarred redshirt or a scuttling Horta around each corner.) Leave a little bit to faith and enter the theater ready to be enchanted. I can always throw in a DVD or pull a graphic novel off the shelf to revisit what's been done. It keeps a brain fresh to see what nobody's done before, even with 40-year-old character concepts. And without curiously entering the unknown, what's the point of Star Trek — or any science fiction?