Friday, June 30, 2006

Critical Mass

On the last Friday of every month, a pack of bicyclists collect at the Carnegie Library in Oakland to set out, en masse, on a tour through Pittsburgh's East End neighborhoods. Normally, I do not like I do not like riding with large groups but since this particular Friday there was going to be a party at Free Ride to benefit Bike Pgh, I thought I would attend.

There certainly was a much higher concentration of grubby clothes, dreadlocks, tattoos, piercings and leftist attitudes than there are in the general population and it was certainly a different crowd that what I am used to at Rails-to-Trail gatherings. They like to bill Critical Mass as a celebration rather than a protest but one only needed to see it to realize that this was civil disobedience.
To keep the ride together, the go through lights. If the light is red when they get there they will stop but once it's green they keep moving until the whole group. Technically, I'm sure this is violating some sort of traffic rule but it's no worse than what happens when a funeral drives through or some impromptu classic car or motorcycle convoys do. There has been at least one encounter with the police during a previous Critical Mass but there were no police in evidence during this eight mile ride.

Critical Mass at NeglyThere were a number of interesting angry encounters along the way, though. There was the guy driving an ice cream truck attempting to pull out of a gas station in Bloomfield saying, "I'll run you motherfuckers over." Yea, I want you delivering ice cream to the kids in my neighborhood. There was another guy in Bloomfield crossing the street with his 4 year old child in tow. He walked straight ahead, looking neither left or right, straight through the mass of cyclists. An old woman in Shadyside did the same "blinders on" advance. You people wouldn't do that if we were cars, would you?

Critical Mass at NeglyWhen a car tried to push its way into the mass of bicyclists, a volunteer cyclist would stop his bike right in front of the vehicle, essentially daring them to run him over. There were the occasional honks of support, a few waves and some applause but aside from the antagonism there was mostly curiosity.

Critical Mass on Penn Avenue with my own helmet in the foregroundI probably won't participate again. It's not that I have anything against them. Bicycle activism needs some anarchists to piss people off once in a while. It's just not my style.

The party wasn't my style, either. All the food was vegetarian or vegan. Not a single piece of meat. The music was overly loud and not anything close to the genre I have an interest in. In years past, these Bike Pgh parties have drown out a number of the Bike Trail people who I know and who know me but none of them were in evidence. I didn't recognize a single person.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Smoke and Mirrors

When I was first told about the Help Desk opportunity down on The Pharm, I was a bit dubious. A long history with The Corporation had taught me never to take anything at face value and not to believe anything was true until it was put in writing. Even so, I was encouraged at the possibility.

But each step of the way lead to a more certain conclusion. I had been initially told that they were going to move "our best of the best" from The Bank to The Pharm. It sounded like it was a done deal and all that was required was the paperwork. But then we were told there was going to be an interview. The Site Manager tried to spin it as just another formality but, as I said, take nothing at face value.

When the interview finally came, it felt just like any other interview rather than the formality I had been lead to expect. Again, when the offer was first proposed, I was told that my training experience was part of the deal. They wanted me to be a trainer for the integration. But again, in the interview I learned that the integration was not what I had been told it was and my training experience was not actually necessary. I was being interviewed to be just another analyst.

Finally, I learned that after the interviews, they decided to hire only one. They had interviewed six people, three of us and three apparently from the general population (or perhaps from The Corporation but not this Help Desk) So, the idea that the best of the best were being transferred was completely debunked.

The reason, the Site Manager told me, was that I created my own policies and that it's not my place to do so. I had been asked what my weakness was and I said that I took the time necessary to resolve issues. This sometimes lead to conflicts with the desire to resolve issues in 7 minutes or open a ticket (not an actual policy but a regularly reiterated guideline) but, if I went over that, it was always in the interest of customer service. The interviewers nodded their heads and agreed that the desire to take as much time as is necessary to resolve the issue was a foundation on which their Help Desk was built. They said that they had no such policy artificially limiting the amount of time taken by an analyst on a call. But, in truth, they had already made their decision. They saw my willingness to ignore policy as a threat to corporate harmony and dropped me. They don't want people that care about clients more than they care about policies and procedures. They want drones that follow orders.

My Site Manager's reaction to this has me believing that he actually thought that I was being transferred to be a trainer. And since I'm pretty sure that the people at The Pharm knew what they wanted and would have conveyed it to our Corporate HR, it was then my own company that spun the tale.

Smoke and mirrors. HR uses the mirrors to reflect your dreams and aspirations back upon you. I was looking to do training so HR made it seem like I was going to be a trainer. I was skeptical so they made it seem like a done deal. They stroked my ego by saying I was the best of the best. HR uses the smoke as layer of obfuscation between me and the truth. They lied to my Site Manager so that he could pass on these untruths with a straight face and a clear conscience.

This all happened on Monday but I haven't written about it until now because, even though I wasn't surprised at the outcome, I was still disappointed. On top of that, there were a number of application rollouts this weekend and nearly half a dozen analysts have left the Help Desk so we were sorely understaffed for the increased call volume. It has been one call after another, all day, all week. Tuesday I took twice as many calls as usual. After those kinds of days I've just gone home, played some "Star Wars: Battlefront," watched some TV and gone to bed. I haven't been motivated to make something to eat, let alone be creative in a blog. And even being physically and emotionally exhausted and going to bed early, I've not been getting much sleep. I need a break but I have too much of a work ethic to blow off work for a mental health day.

So, I return to square one having learned a valuable lesson: Lie your ass off during the interview. When they ask what your weakness is, be prepared with something piddling and unrelated, even if you think the truth could be spun to your advantage. They are lying to you and don't deserve the truth in return.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Where the Calamari Orders You.

I was in New York this week for my nephew's High School graduation and afterwards we went with my brother's family to Benihana. I was immediately disturbed by the horror on the plates.

It was the great elder god Cthulhu set above what must have been a multi-eyed and tentacled Shoggoth. My wife insisted that I was looking at it upside down and that it was actually flowers in a vase but I simply wasn't buying it.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Visiting the Pharm

After five week, I finally got the chance to go out to the new client site and interview. (Since this is a pharmaceutical company, I will protect their identity by referring to them as "The Pharm.")

Three of us from The Bank Help Desk went out at the same time. The Pharm representatives appreciated this because they were able to bring us into the secure building all at once rather than having to run up and down the stairs for each of us. They had apparently been scheduled for 6 meetings, one every half hour.

Of the three, I was to go last so I loitered in the Help Desk area. And it was familiar, in a sense. There was one person that I had trained at The Bank and had moved out to The Pharm a year ago. In addition, there were four of the Old Guard who had also been at The Bank and had moved out. That was great because, in talking to them I got a sense of just how much better this was.

For one, they've unscrewed all the lights. Walking through the door into the Help Desk, you would think that everyone had gone home for the day but most people are working only by the light of their monitors. Others have desk lamps. Only the Notes Team seem to like the light so they are all on one side of the room with ceiling lights.

They have wireless headsets so that can move about freely. One person told me she had gone to the kitchen/break area while on a call but that was just a little too far and the signal was breaking up. I'm reminded of a webcomic I scripted two years ago.

The Pharm is much more interested in issue resolution than in clearing the queue like The Bank is. There is no one looking over your shoulder telling you that you've been on the call too long (7 minutes) and telling you to move on. They want the issue resolved and if it takes 30 or 45 minutes that that's how long you should take. There are metrics such as availability, first call resolution and the like but they are easily met by competent workers and there is no pressure.

When I got the chance to meet with the reps, I was comfortable and confident. They asked one of the common interview questions; "What do you think is your weakness?"

"I tend to take whatever time is necessary to resolve an issue in spite of company policy. I refuse to end a call just because my 7 minute time limit is up, and I've flat out told my managers that as well. Where that is a liability at The Bank, it sounds like that's actually the way you do things here."

When my Site Manager and Operations Manager first talked about this opportunity, I got the impression that my training experience would be utilized as part of what they called "the integration." I assumed that would be between The Pharm's helpdesk and the new staff from The Corporation. Well, I was mislead. The integration they were talking about is that The Pharm used to have a third party supplying their hardware support. The Corporation is now taking care of hardware and is also taking over the Help Desk. The integration will be between the Help Desk and Hardware arms, make them a contiguous spectrum of support. My training experience is probably not going to be a factor in that. They also rely a lot on their knowledge base application for training. I may yet be involved in that, but it's not going to be what I thought.

When I got back downtown, my Site Manager was excited to hear how it had gone. I think he was a little disappointed that I seemed so blase about the whole thing. It's not that I'm disappointed but I've gotten used to these things not panning out and what had at first seemed like a sure thing has been shown to not be so sure.

My ego did get a boost, though, when my Site Manager said that he had really wanted to do something for me. He said that I had done everything here at the Help Desk and should have been moved up to Team Lead or some other manager position but there simply wasn't such a position available.

He's looking at this move out to The Pharm as a promotion but I'm seeing it as a change of environment with more pay. How much more pay, I still don't know. Since I was talking to representatives of The Pharm, they only knew operational details. I'll have to wait for The Corporate Overlords to make their pay offer. The Pharm guys said that they want to start moving quickly so I might be hearing about this in a few weeks.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Harassment Citation

The investigating detective in my Eliza Furnace case called to let me know that Codename P and his lawyer came to the Zone 4 station to receive a summary citation for the charge of harassment. It was, unfortunately, the best that could be done for in all the instances of grease and toothpaste under the door handles occurring over the past year, I was the only one to file official reports with the police. And though the reports were filed as Malicious Mischief, because no significant damage was done to my vehicle, the most severe charge that could be levied is harassment.

I am told that a court date will be set, likely in a month or so. I don't see much point to it though. Codename P told the detective that he "wouldn't do it anymore" which strikes me as an admission of guilt. For summary offenses, much like traffic violations, if he simply sends in his check for the fine, that could well be the end of it. There hardly seems any need to enter a courtroom.

I would very much like to have seen that. To stand before a judge and have him asked why the hell he would do such a thing? What did he hope to accomplish?

The court date may yet occur but I suspect Codename P's lawyer will do all the talking, simply admit guilt, write the check and get his client the hell out of there.

And while justice has been served, the victory seems somewhat hollow. And just as the year before all this when he was telling people he would have them towed and, when confronted, said "he wouldn't do it anymore," will he simply change his tactics? A year from now will he forget the minor price he had to pay and choose another tactic?

The wheels of justice turn. And turn again.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The real old fashioned way

I spent most of my day at Meadowcroft competing in a World Atlatl Association competition. In the past, I have only spectated at the flint knappers making arrowheads and spear points but today I was recruited to sit down and learn something. I started on a point, knocking of flakes until it started to look vaguely like it could someday be an arrowhead. Then, *whack*, I hit at the wrong angle and broke the piece in half.

So, I started again with another piece of stone. I got about as far with this one as I had with the other when, *snap*, I knocked the point off of that one.

On the third try, I got a piece of flint that seemed to cooperate better. The flakes weren't coming off quite the way I wanted but they were too small rather than too large, which is easier to work with. Plus, I think I was starting to get the hang of it. I still didn't have a good eye as to where to strike to shape things the way I wanted but, with some guidance, I was able to produce a serviceable 2 inch arrowhead after about three hours total.

The pros said that it was very good for a first point. It looked better than their first points and it was even better than some authentic Native American points they had found in the field.

Even so, I don't see myself jumping into the hobby of flint knapping. I feel that I lack some of the subtlety, tendant towards wanting to tie a rock to a stick and calling it a club.

It's still a nice little point.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Getting the call

It was five weeks ago that I was "offered" a position at a new Help Desk client site. Last week, I was told that I would be getting a call from the Site Manager out there on either Friday or Monday. Well, Tuesday came and went without any response.

My current Site Manager followed up and on Wednesday everyone here got an update call. My own was left on my home answering machine and had an odd tinge to it. The first part seemed to be a disclaimer, along the sort of "I don't know what you've been told" message that makes it seem that my Site Manager's enthusiasm and impression that things were going to be happening quickly and that our moving out there were sure things wasn't so sure. The other part was the suggestion that the delay was because of a management change.

Well, of course there's a management change. The Corporation is taking over someone's Help Desk so it's a given that the current management is going to be replaced. I'm just concerned that we're going to be the first outsiders to invade with the expectation that everyone already there will be getting the axe to be replaced by us cheaper employees. That's what happened when The Corporation took over operations at The Bank just before I started there.

We got another update today. The Site Manager out there wants to do interviews next week. He also wants to get all of us at once. Not in the same room but pretty much at the same time with two sitting in the hall waiting while one is in interviewing. Or perhaps there will be several people interviewing and we'll be processed in a sort of "flash dating" round-robin.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Gruntled Henchmen

Narbonic is a terrific webcomic by Shaenon Garrity about mad scientist Helen B. Narbon and her henchmen. And, in keeping with the mad scientist theme, Shaenon has devised a diabolical website. You can read today's webcomic but you can't go back and read yesterday's without getting a subscription. You can read a few chapters but you can't learn the details of the Dave Conspiracy or what happened while henchman Dave Davenport was dead without either subscribing or ordering the printed collected volumes.

Well, she got me on that second one. Instead of eating dinner, I sat at the dinner table, read both volumes and laughed my ass off.

But, I don't feel used (well, not much, anyway) because she not only autographed both books but included original artwork on the mailing envelope. One can't feel exploited when the package comes with adorable gerbils.

Monday, June 12, 2006

It's Official: Big Ben is an Idiot.

I know it's unusual for a native Pittsburgher, but I pay little or no attention to local sports. But even with that level of inattentiveness I was able to hear some of the row over the past year about Steeler quarterback Ben Rothilsberger's refusal to wear a helmet when riding his motorcycle. I'm sure he used all the tired old augments that lobbyists used to get Pennsylvania's helmet laws repealed; "It's a matter of choice", "I drive safely", "I'm not taking risks."

I remember my Grandfather. As he got older, he wasn't able to drive himself anymore so I became his chauffeur. Trying to get him to wear a seatbelt was a major challenge.

"Drive so that I don't have to wear a seatbelt."

I always wanted to yell at him. It doesn't matter how safely I try to drive, if some other asshat on the road does something stupid, without a seatbelt you're going to be kissing the windshield. THAT'S why you wear one. Of course, my Grandfather accused me of being an "unsophisticated driver" because I drove with one foot for brake and accelerator rather than with one foot on the brake and the other for the gas.

Ben Rothilsberger made the same sort of arrogant mistake by deluding himself into believing that his safety on the road was entirely in his own hands. Some pinhead turned in front of him and he was unable to stop in time. BANG, into the car, richocheting his face off the windshield and then onto the concrete. According to news reports, he busted his jaw. If that's all the damage he sustained then he is incredibly lucky. But his survival still doesn't make him any less stupid.

It may be a matter of choice but it was an astronomically bad choice. A choice that he was repeatedly warned about in advance.

I ride a bicycle so I never get up to the highway speeds that motorcycle riders achieve but I still wear a helmet because I know that hitting the pavement at even a mild 10-15 mph can lead to a concussion. I've been forced off the road, sideswiped, broadside and any number of other road mishaps when I was obeying the traffic laws and riding as safely as I could. That attentiveness to safety still did not protect me from all the morons out there who believe that roads are only for them. Last year, I found myself taking off my helmet to rid the trail because I was getting uncomfortably hot. I realized the risk I was taking and spent nearly $200 to get a better ventilated helmet so that I could ride safe and cool.

I hate to say we told you so but, Ben, we did. Your coach told you. Your esteemed predecessor Terry Bradshaw (who knows a thing or two about football) told you. The doctors told you. The editorials in the paper told you. But you didn't listen. You listened to your own arrogance and illusions of immortality and now you're paying the price. If you had worn a helmet, you might have been able to walk away from that accident. Instead, you're going to spend the next 7 weeks healing a broken jaw. Was your machismo worth it? Have you learned anything at all from this?

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Bike-Pgh BBQ Fundraiser

Bike-Pgh had a BBQ Fundraiser at Whole Foods in East Liberty today and I went to show my support to the cause. I also made flyers with the photograph of Codename P vandalizing my car so that I can spread the word to Pittsburgh's biking community.

On Thursday, three weeks since filing the report with the photographs included, I was contacted by the investigating detective from Zone 4. He had not gotten a response from the people at Bike-Pgh concerning other people who have been vandalized at the Eliza Furnace lot and, without that, he was going to proceed as if I were the only victim. At the BBQ I was able to talk to the Director of Bike-Pgh and remind him to contact the police so that they have everything they need.

One of the suggestions that came up during conversation with other cyclists was to go to UPMC. UPMC leases the lot from Codename P and I am sure they would not want to be associated with his vanadlaous ilk. Shaming someone into doing the right thing is certainly an option but I prefer the legal system. His harassing of bicycle commuters is wrong and I would not want to be thought of as harassing him in turn, going to UPMC or encouraging people to take matters into their own hands.

On the other hand, sometimes justice needs to be served from outside the system. A friend sent me a link about a New York City resident who's friend left her cell phone in a taxi. You can read the entire story here but, the short form is he left a message to the cell phone telling the people who found it how it could be returned for a reward. The people who found it, however, responded with abusive messages that they would not return it. His investigation was able to track down who these people were and he reported it to the police (an adventure in itself). But he also posted his story online and very quickly amassed a following of people not only reading his story but helping him.

The director of Bike-Pgh asked me if it was ok if he made a posting about the Eliza Furnace vandalism and my photograph to the Ride a Bike blog that he maintains. I said, "absolutely." Perhaps some additional coverage will get other cyclists to come foreward with additional reports. Each additional piece of evidence is valuable in bringing Codename P to justice.

Monday, June 05, 2006

WMD Insurance

My auto insurance policy came up for renewal recently. O don't normally pay much attention to the policy itself and just pay the bills as they come but this time I noticed something strange under the "Endorsements attached to your policy" section:

Nuclear, Bio-Chemical & Mold Exclusion Endorsement

It struck me as very odd, indeed. I can understand the nuclear, biological and chemical things being itemized together, but mold??? How does mold rank up there with the risks from Weapons of Mass destruction? I called my insurance provider and got the following details:

Aside from such losses caused by terrorism activities, we do not provide coverage for loss, damage, injury, liability, cost or expense, due to or as a consequence of, whether controlled or uncontrolled or however caused:

a. Nuclear Exposure, reaction or explosion including resulting fire, smoke, radiation or contamination; and/or
b. Biological or chemical attack or exposure to biological or chemical agents, or combination of such agents, including resulting contamination or pollution.

We do not provide coverage for loss, damage, injury, liability, cost or expense arising out of or aggravated by, in whole or in part, "mold, fungus, wet rot, dry rot, bacteria or virus."

"Mold, fungus, wet rot, dry rot, bacteria or virus" means any type or form of fungus, rot, virus or bacteria. This includes mold, mildew and any mycotoxins, other microbes, spores, scents or byproducts produced or released by mold, mildew, fungus, rot, bacteria, or virus.

Now, I can see how this was put together. There was at one time an exclusion for mold. I imaging the most likely instance of this would be a car with the windows left open getting wet and developing that funky mildew smell. Or perhaps, the car gets caught in a flood and, while the engine survives, the upholstery does not. But after 9/11 they felt compelled to add something about not covering the hot-button fears of the day. I still haven't figured out why they categorized it with mold except that the exception shared similar language.

And I particularly like the language at the end where it says, essentially, "when we say mold, we mean mold. And fungus means fungus."

If my car gets nuked by Al Qaeda then I'm covered because it's an act of terrorism. But, if Iran declares war on the US and my car gets nuked in the ensuing melee, it's not covered because it wasn't an act of terrorism. If I park my car next to a nuclear power plant and it melts down; not covered. If a tanker truck full of mustard gas crashes on the highway, inundating my car; not covered. If an avian flu infected bird takes a dump on the hood; not covered. Body in the trunk bloats and festers with rot and disease; not covered. Attacked by triffids? Coverage would depend on whether a triffid is considered an animal, an ambulatory fungus or some other sort of animated carnivorous plant. By insurance company logic, I'm sure they'd find a way to deny coverage in either case.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Shekels from Heaven

More that a week ago while I was walking down Grant Street, I saw a coin on the sidewalk and picked it up. It had Greek lettering on it but I didn't think much of it as the last Greek coin I had picked up off the ground turned out to be plated metal with a hole in it as part of cheap jewelry. I put it in my waist pack and forgot about it.

Today, I was looking for the tweezers for my mini Swiss Army knife in my belt pouch and came across the coin again. This time, I paid a little more attention.

On one side is a portrait in the Roman style and on the reverse is a bird of some sort and the Greek lettering. The minting is a bit off of center so it is clearly not a modern coin. It's about the size of a quarter but twice as heavy.

The weight got me to thinking it might be silver. Now I was really interested. I started an internet search and very quickly found what I was looking for.

It is a silver shekel issued by the Phoenician city of Tyre (c. 126 BCE - 66 CE). The face side features a representation of Melkart, the chief deity of the Phoenicians. The reverse shows an Egyptian-style eagle with its right claw resting on a ship's rudder (referring to Tyre's port), a club (Melkart is associated with Hercules), and the Greek inscription ΚΑΙΑΣΥΛΟΥ ΤΥΡΟΥΙΕΡΑΣ ("Tyre the Holy and Inviolable") and a date. These coins, produced in large quantities, became the standard silver coinage in the Phoenician-Judaean area, replacing the coins of Alexander the Great.

Because all the Roman coins had gods on them and the Romans required the payment of taxes, the Jews were in a bit of a fix because they weren't permitted to use them because of the First Commandment about not having other gods, graven images and all that. The Jewish leaders decided that this particular coin, with a minor god (at least by Roman standards) on the face, was the least offensive and thus was the only coin that would be authorized for tax payments. It didn't hurt that it was also a well minted coin with a consistent weight of silver for accounting purposes. And because they were common coins at the time, when a coin is mentioned in the Bible's New Testament it was likely this coin. This was the coin spilled to the floor when Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychanger's in the temple. This was the coin that Jesus had Peter pull from the fish's mouth to pay the temple tax. This was the coin that Judas was paid with for his betrayal.

My Internet search was unable to figure out more precisely how old the coin is. The date, located behind the eagle, consists of the number of years since the acknowledgment of Tyre's independence by Syria (126 BCE). For example, the Greek ΡΛ would represent 130 years or 3-4 CE. On my coin, I can't identify the single date character. There is an obsolete letter Qoppa which has a version that looks a little like the symbol on the coin. If so, Qoppa's numerical representation of 90 would make the coin's minting date about 36 BCE. I'm just guessing, though. It'd probably take a pro to tell for sure.

In any case, I may have found found an over 2,000 year old coin just walking down a Pittsburgh street. According to the websites I looked at, it could easily be worth hundreds of dollars. It could also just as easily be a replica coin worth nothing.