Restaurant in the Earthquake

Alexis sent me this amusing note about the earthquake:

I went for lunch at the local Indian restaurant. It’s in a new building, so they didn’t suffer any damage (not even broken glasses). The story told by the waitress was kinda funny, though – one of the cooks said, “Ok, I’m turning on the dishwashing machine now” and just as he hit the button, the earthquake started. Apologising for the violent shaking, he turned it off again—but of course the shaking didn’t stop. Then they panicked. Pushing the waitress out of the way (she showed me her injured wrist) and dashing out the door, one cook ran North and the other cook ran South. Anyway, now the restaurant is doing unusually brisk Sunday lunch business (and serving a lot of beer).


Kudos to Imperial Parking

Blogs often criticize, but it’s equally important to praise those who act honorably. So I’m happy to have something good to say about Imperial Parking. I asked them to do the right thing about what I felt was an unjust ticket. To their credit, they did.

I received the ticket while attending Northern Voice. None of the dispensers at the gate offered a ticket; seeing no other indication and a raised gate (when I reached the last dispenser their sign was behind me) I figured I was expected to pay the attendant the flat rate on the way out, as at other lots. I didn’t see any other signs or ticket machines, although there should be one because that’s the sign said when I read it going out. After nine hours at the conference, I was rather shocked to find a ticket (I’ve never received a parking or traffic ticket of any kind before). Here’s the end of the letter I sent:

I am enclosing two checks: one for $13, which I believe is what I owe, another for $26.96 (total: $39.96). I request that you do the right thing: cash the first and return the second. Fighting back and forth is not worth my time. I look forward to your reply, and intend to record it – good or bad – on the Internet (and notify the Better Business Bureau if appropriate). Of course, I also suggest you improve the signage at Robson Square.

Today I received a form letter, along with my returned check for $26.96.


Bob Everton

I only knew Bob Everton through the Political Media course he taught at SFU this autumn. I signed up at the last minute, and almost dropped the course. I’m glad I didn’t.

My first impression of Bob was of someone enthusiastic and energetic to the point of being wacky. As I continued the course, and talked to him in and out of class, I found he was an intelligent thoughtful man who put great effort into teaching his students. He told me he spent close to an hour each grading 35 class projects, each of which included newspaper and video submissions.

Bob was incredibly personable. Whenever I spoke to him he always had a great big smile. He would greet me by name, and it wasn’t just me: in a class of seventy he would call out the names of students asking questions.

His views were sometimes eccentric, but I realized it was they and his enthusiasm for the subject which gave the class energy. By the end of the course, I had decided I wanted to keep in touch as a friend with a man I had thought was a nutty professor. The day before he died, I sent him an email about a bit of history I thought might be useful for teaching the course in the future. I looked forward to discussing it with him: I would have valued his opinion. Now I know why I never received a reply.

Bob Everton died of a heart attack last Friday, 17 December 2004. He was 55.


New Orleans

Finally I may have a bit of time to blog. Last week, Cindy and I attended the Sakai conference in New Orleans. I may comment on the conference itself later – it was educational, especially about perceptions of open source. But the city was disturbing.

From the airport taxi downtown spread out before us – a handful of highrises, a small stadium. Everything was flat, like Toronto in miniature.

The first thing I noticed in New Orleans was race: taxi drivers and hotel staff were nearly all back; the guests were white. Most of the natives weren’t very friendly, sometimes to the point of rudeness. The conference bartender ignored me while he chatted, refused to suggest a drink, twice acted as though he never heard “thank you very much”. He wasn’t unusual. Other staff were all creepy overexuberant teeth and smiles, sporting earpieces like government agents. The hotel was flash without substance – an uncomfortable union of earthy colors and shiny surfaces.

The first morning we had breakfast at a diner. People there seemed more alive, more human. The employees (black) suffered from gold or missing teeth. I started to get the feeling of how much we were not seeing, how broken this society must be.

A colleague told a story of a wrong exit from the expressway, which dumped him just outside the French Quarter. People lounged in armchairs in the street, and clustered around oil drum fires. A car pulled up beside him, told him to turn around and get out of there before he was killed. Another night, he walked too far on the boardwalk and was checked by a cop, turned back into the protection of the good neighborhood.

Cindy and I took a tour of the town. The driver was a genuinely friendly fellow. We drove past beautiful old houses, and he told us how even now he would not be invited to a Creole party. He’s too black. Asked about safety, this big black man told us he would never go alone at night into any of the areas we saw. The big houses on the boulevards are worth ten times those immediately behind, which once housed slaves. The cemeteries with walls close at 1:30 in the afternoon; criminals lurk behind crypts; it’s never safe to enter except in groups.

The taxi driver back to the airport – a nice black woman – told us how drivers were killed regularly in the city. She only takes passengers from hotels and the airport; restaurants, gas stations, the street are too dangerous. What do you say to that? “It’s not like that where we come from.” “I’m sorry to hear it.” “I hope you get a better job.”

That society is broken. Beautiful houses stand for hundreds of years of terrible history. Cemeteries are places of murder and death. The divisions are so deep that they have destroyed civility. The great crime of slavery and the loss of the civil war lurk invisible.

Our history is blessedly brief, but we are not pure in Canada. We have poverty and bad teeth, homeless in the cities and the desperate conditions of Indian reserves. Witnessing New Orleans, I thought it doesn’t take long to break a society; once broken, who knows if it can be repaired.


What's a “Code”?

Can someone explain to me why academics, journalists, businessfolk, and people who profess to know something about technology use the expression “a code” when they mean a software program? I have never heard a programmer use the word like that. Code is a collective noun, like sand, or water, or “copy” in journalism. You don’t say “I’m gonna get me a sand” any more than you say “I’m gonna write me a code”.

“Code” is the counterpart to “data”. It’s the information in the computer that makes it do something; “data” is the stuff it does that something to. It’s what programmers produce when they work (the verb is “to code”). If a programmer works for an hour, whatever s/he produced – finished or unfinished – is “code”. When you subdivide code, you get code. When you combine bits of code together, what you have is still code. Code is not like gears or camshafts or wheels: when you copy code you have two pieces of code but they’re still the same code. If you have the source code for one program, it’s code; if you have the source code for two programs it’s still just code.

So don’t say “a code;. And although Jargonfile claims the expression is used in scientific computing, it’s best to avoid “codes; also. It will only make you look ignorant to snobs like me. We already lost the battle on “hacker;; we’re not going to let any more words go without a fight.


The Taste of Winter

I just stepped out of a hot shower on a chilly Victoria morning, and it made me feel like Christmas. Suddenly I realize it’s the cold air that makes the difference. My back is scorched from the temperature I slowly turned up while standing under the tap, and warm water covers me from head to toe, but along my ankles and my arms are pricks where the cold is getting through. Then I get it. Temperature is a flavor.

Our tongues apparently have four taste zones: bitter, salt, sweet, and sour. Recently scientists have added a fifth whose name escapes me, but which more-or-less corresponds to MSG. From this handful, and from smell, and from the texture of food in our mouths, we build up all the complexity of flavor. We don’t always take advantage of the whole range: Cindy says in North America there are only two flavors (at least of snacks), salt and sweet. The French have a deeper understanding; even their McDonalds categorize breakfast as sucre or sale.

But taste is only one of the senses. We feel also: texture, and also temperature and humidity and (I believe) the burn of ultraviolet on the skin. If four tastes are enough, then these are also. Weather and climate are like cuisines. It is one of the things I miss here in Vancouver: the soft sifting of snow on a chilly evening, and the warm embrace of a cafe afterwards. They say there are people who live to eat, and people who eat to live. I eat to live. When the weather is right, I live to feel.

I’m posting a couple of days late. I really was just out of the shower in Victoria when I wrote this.


Trivial Pursuit

The two games I despise above all others are Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly. For Monopoly, the reason is obvious: it’s brainless, self-centered, and blatantly unbalanced. For Trivial Pursuit I had an inkling why: I have trouble with U.S.-centric questions; when it comes to questions about sports or television and movie stars I am completely lost. The other day I saw a TV ad for the 90s edition: someone opens a time capsule and celebrities from the 1990s start pouring out. Suddenly it was very clear. Trivial Pursuit is stuck in a cliquish high-school view of the world. It isn’t about the game. It’s about cultural affirmation. And it’s not much fun if it isn’t your culture.


Canadian Spelling

If anyone has been watching closely, they may have noticed my spelling. It’s American. It didn’t used to be: like all good Canadian students I was brought up to defend our proud mix of British and American conventions (“colour” and “centre” but “mom” and “civilize”). American spelling still bothers me. But language changes. Sometimes it simplifies, and boy could English spelling do with simplification.

For better or worse, English is the international language. Its inconstant spelling helps to create a class of people who are not fully literate; it is a barrier not only for native speakers but for people of all languages and cultures. Recent research suggests it may even contribute to higher levels of dyslexia among speakers of English.

It won’t happen overnight; no academie should or could dictate how we spell. That doesn’t mean that change should not or will not come. The American changes so far are tiny – nothing like what Webster hoped for when he included “definit” and “fether” in his dictionary. More recent innovations, like “thru” and “lite” are not yet acceptable in literate writing. They grate on me because I am not used to them. But in the end, American spelling will be the standard. Consistent is better. Simpler is better. I have changed in the hope that others will.


Safeway and Mr. Chen

You know how Safeway has this loyalty card programme. So when they hand me the receipt, they like to be polite. It’s creepy as hell.

“Thank you Mr. Chen.”

The first name on the card is also Chinese. I’m blonde and blue-eyed. When I was a baby I looked like I’d been bleached.

One of the cashiers was clever – she squinted at me and said, “that’s not your name.”

“Yeah, I changed my name when I got married.”

I continue.

“I took my wife’s ex-boyfriend’s last name.”

It really is my wife’s ex-boyfriend’s last name. It’s not his phone number (or ours).

“It makes her feel better. And you know, I love her and all that stuff, so I thought why not.”

I used to use the phone number of another friend’s card. She registered as Jenna Jones. It still works. For a while I was Mr. Jones; every time I bought groceries I started humming Counting Crows.

Before that I was a big, big star: Fred Flintstone, phone number 1234567. Every now and then a cashier would say, “Is that your REAL phone number?”

I guess the computer figured it out one day and ditched Fred. A friendly cashier suggested 222–2222, and from then on people thought I sold pizza.

You gotta wonder sometimes.

I’m probably better off being Mr. Chen.

It’s all true. Except the bit about changing my name.


Taxi Driver

On the way to the airport for our vacation the taxi driver was taciturn. His counterpart on our return to Vancouver was nothing like.

He was Iranian, and like other Iranians I have known he loved to talk. Somehow we talked about food. He took both hands from the wheel and rummaged around in his bag for something, but the road was straight and we had survived Italy so we were not too concerned. He emerged with a pair of chopsticks. “I am 99.8 percent Chinese,” he announced, and with the chopsticks in one hand and the other on the wheel he seized a 500mL bottle of water (half a kilo!) and raised it in the air. “I love the food. The only thing that stops me from being Chinese is I don’t speak the language.” He spoke about different types of Chinese food, from the north, from the south, from Szechuan.

Nationalism is poison, but for a moment I succumbed to pride. This is the kind of society we are fighting to bring into the world. This is who we are striving to be.

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