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.