Stereotyping

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The other day I drove up to Ottawa. Bytown. The nation’s capital. The home of some of the worst-designed roads and highways on the continent. (But that’s only my opinion. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, after all.)

There is some background to this (that you probably don’t care about but I’m going to give it to you anyway). In particular, there are two basic (not) routes between here and there. The first one involves a modern, award-winning (so clearly not designed in Ottawa), high-speed, four-lane-all-the-way route which is fast and generally fairly efficient. It’s also a little boring and can be stressful. (Because it’s modern and efficient, traffic levels are often quite high. So I usually take the other route.)

The other one is a little shorter (roughly 20k — about ten percent) but is not nearly as modern, is a little slower, goes through multiple small communities and is not nearly as straight. (Of course, winding roads plus an insanely overpowered vehicle plus a capriform playing guitar equals fun, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing.)

Anyway, I left a little after 9 in the morning and had… problems. In particular, Highway 15 was Under Construction. It was slow at Joyceville. It was down to one lane at that-place-where-I-almost-had-a-fatal-motorcycle-accident-in-1985. It was completely torn up at Elgin. It was blocked at Crosby. And where the construction had finished, where you might hope to make speedy progress, well, those bits had trucks painting lines. And when that happens on a windy road you have to follow them for miles at a walking pace before the school buses in front of you can get by them. Good thing it was a nice day.

(All things considered, this is actually a good thing. Roads need maintenance, after all. And that road is an old design and practically screams for the odd modern amenity. It’s good to see it happen.)

But all this meant that it was slow going. So slow that I arrived at the midpoint (more or less) of my trip at almost exactly 11.

11:00 is important to the story because that’s when a burger joint along the route (I was going to include a link, but the corporate website got the restaurant location completely wrong. Good going, faceless corporate drones.) opens for lunch. Being a burger restaurant, they wouldn’t do a whole lot of breakfast business but lunch is another matter. And right then lunch seemed like a decent idea. So I stopped.

This is where I digress a bit and talk about stereotypes.

Stereotypes, by themselves, are neither good nor bad. We consciously and unconsciously make assumptions and generalizations as a sort of mental shorthand to help make sense out of a complex world. Of course, having said that, a lot of stereotypes come with, um, let’s just call it ‘baggage‘. Sometimes that baggage is positive. (“Canadians are polite.“) Sometimes it’s negative. (“Canadians love Celine Dion.“) Often it’s neutral. (“Canadians like hockey.”) So when I stopped at a roadside burger joint at opening time I wound up thinking “What kind of people would I expect to be the first ones through the door of a burger joint at opening time?” Several stereotypes popped to mind. And I wasn’t disappointed.

I half expected to see blue-collar working types, there for an early lunch after a long morning of hard work. I was more or less correct — the third vehicle in the parking lot was a pickup truck, full of brush-clearing equipment and two tall, fit-looking guys in chainsaw-resistant pants who practically reeked of testosterone. Check.

I expected to see harried-looking travellers who, having run the gauntlet of road construction and line painting, wanted nothing more than something to eat, something to drink and someplace to pee. Well, there was me. Check. Sort of.

But the first car into the parking lot? The people waiting impatiently at the door for the employee to unlock it? Well, that was two little old ladies.

I wasn’t expecting that.

So I learned three things:

  • I learned that Highway 15 is getting better.
  • I learned the Wi-Fi password for a burger place that is not (whatever Corporate may think) in a field.
  • I learned that some little old ladies can eat more burgers than I can.

Clearly some of my mental stereotypes need a little fine-tuning.

 

Figuring

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This blog is named ‘Rose Glace’s Blog.’ This morning, Michelle asked (apparently not for the first time) why.

It’s VMS‘s fault. Sort of.

VMS is/was a computer operating system that you’ve probably never heard of. It’s an incredibly stable and fairly easy to use operating system that had the advantage (which was also a disadvantage) of being proprietary when its main competitor sort of wasn’t. (The era of the killer micros was hard on computer vendors. They sold a lot of product, it’s true, but they had to embrace the ‘openness’ of Unix and at the same time sell their own proprietary version that they had to argue was somehow ‘better’ than all the others to justify its proprietariness.(Is that even a word?) This level of blatant doublethink probably drove an entire generation of sales droids to madness. Not that you’d be able to tell.)

Where was I? VMS. VMS was a darned good operating system (more than good enough to steal from) but far from perfect. And I’ve mentioned that VMS was proprietary for a long time (I confess I don’t know its exact status today since I haven’t used it in twenty years.) The company that owned it was sort of like VMS — good in a lot of ways but with… warts. For one thing, it was often — but not always — incredibly inflexible. (For example, I remember an OS upgrade that rendered some third-party hardware non-functional. Even though they had no requirement to fix this, the DEC service arm did. For free. But unofficially: “We were never here; you found those parts in a dumpster somewhere.”)

On the other hand, sometimes (often? usually?) DEC was very bondage-and-discipline. Very ein-zwei. Rules-oriented. All about Processes and Procedures.

In other words, Difficult.

Unsurprisingly, this led to massive frustration (perhaps ‘widespread’ would be a better word — it wasn’t a ‘massive’ community, after all) but also prompted widespread humour. In particular, one famous (again, ‘famous’ might not be the right word) screed that came out of this community had the simple title ‘See figure 1.‘ It was born from the frustration of dealing with DEC and its various support arms, especially the VMS ‘support’ group. (Although VMS was darned good, no one — except the vendor — would ever claim that it was perfect.)

‘See figure 1′ had something to say about a lot of things. Including the default settings within the VMS operating system:

Defaults.  We put a lot of thought into our defaults.  We like them.  If we didn’t, we would have made something else be the default.  So keep your cotton-picking hands off our defaults. Don’t touch.  Consider them mandatory.  “Mandatory defaults” has a nice ring to it.  Change them and your system crashes, tough. See figure 1.

Of course this coloured my attitude toward defaults. (A bit. I mean, I never believed that The Vendor Was Always Right (because they clearly aren’t) but the folks that set defaults are sometimes clever people who have reasons for doing what they do. In particular, sometimes they have reasons for choosing particular values and making them the default. There is value in understanding those reasons before doing the bull-in-a-china-shop thing and changing stuff willy-nilly.)

Anyway, this blog was originally created because someone asked me how hard it was to create a blog. Because it was an experiment, a test, a proof-of-concept if you will, I took the proffered defaults even though they weren’t mandatory defaults. And the default name was… ‘Rose Glace’s Blog.’

Michelle also asks “…what it [the title] means to you.”

That one’s easy.

See Figure 1.

 

Sinning

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I don’t deal well with change.

That isn’t entirely true. Perhaps I should instead say ‘I don’t deal well with every kind of change'; I deal with some kinds of change just fine. Other kinds, not so much. And change just for the sake of change (especially when proposed demanded by a guy in a suit) even less. But it wouldn’t be wrong to say that, in a lot of ways, I value stability. Coincidentally, that’s sort of what Michelle asked about this morning.

Sort of. I mean, she didn’t really ask about the concept of stability but rather things that keep one (in this case, me) stable. I’m not claiming to be particularly grounded or anything but inasmuch as I am, there are things that help. Like people. Places. Things. Habits.

H’m.

Habits. Rituals. Routines. I have lots of those. Like making tea before I curl. Like carefully selecting the appropriate T-shirt for an occasion. Like eating bacon at a vegetarian restaurant on Saturdays. These are little things — I get that — but I like them. They’re important to me.

And sometimes they can have totally unexpected benefits. Breakfast, for example, often brings extras. Like entertaining behavior by other diners, large and small. Like unannounced drop-ins by politicians from Hamilton. Like entertaining art. (I first saw this piece there, for example. It’s now hanging next to the Green Chair Of Thinkitude.)

On a recent Saturday there was new art. I liked some of it, some of it wasn’t really my cup of tea but most of it was interesting. The most visually striking was a six-piece treatment of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Six?

Yes, six. Because the artist left one out (the one that happens to be my personal favorite). I don’t know the reason he left it out, of course, but I like to assume it’s self-referential: he left out a picture of the sin of laziness because he was too lazy to draw it.  Or maybe he did draw it but was too lazy to bring it in to the ICC. I hope it was something like that.

Anyway, before long our breakfasts arrived. They were as good as they usually are but I had this feeling of being watched. But who? I couldn’t see anyone watching me. There was no small person peering at me from the next booth. There were no politicians. There were no librarians. I was stumped.

But then I looked to my right. There was a pair of eyes a foot from my head. Whose eyes, you ask? Who was watching me eat?

 

The credit to the artist will go here as soon as I find his or her name.

It looks a little like me, too.

Crossing. Signalling.

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Last Monday was Towel Day.

Towel day is an informal memorial — a modest celebration of the life,
works and legacy of an English writer, humorist and observer of the
human condition. It’s observed (if that’s even the right word) only by
nerds. (And not all nerds. Just a specific kind of nerd. Possibly
of a certain age.) I did not have my towel with me on Monday which is
proof positive (not that any was really needed) that I am not a hoopy
frood. I was out running some errands and after putting the car back
where I found it (I hadn’t stolen it. Honest.) I was walking home when
I approached an intersection near my house. (It wasn’t the corner I
mentioned two years ago, but close.)

There were no traffic lights (there was a stop sign — a four-way stop
sign, one of the enduring monuments to the city’s ongoing resentment
of traffic flow. But this isn’t meant to be a rant.). There was no
crossing guard. There were no pedestrians. There were no cars, no
bicycles, no vechicles-whose-very-existence-relies-on-their-
ability-to-avoid-classification. No one.

Strike that. There was a bicycle. (And me of course, but that kind of
goes without saying. But I was half a block away, far enough that I
would claim not to have affected the event to any significant
degree. I think.)

He (the cyclist) was headed south. Somewhat unusual for unobserved
bicycles in these parts (Ubi non accusator, ibi non judex), he
actually stopped at the stop sign. Even more unbelievable, he actually
signalled his intentions. Up went his hand to tell all and sundry
(ie. me — I’m as sundry as they come) he was going to make a right
turn.

“Well, that’s nice” I thought. “Totally unnecessary of course, but
nice. People should get in the habit of announcing their
intentions. It makes life easier for other people when they know what
to expect.”

Then he turned left.

Bop Ad was right — even when they’re trying to do the right thing,
people are a problem.

 

Naming

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The internet runs on…

Let me put that off for just a second and consider something slightly different — not what it runs on, but what it’s full of …

Well, it’s full of lots of things. It’s full of ‘information’, although one should probably possess a heaping helping of skepticism before actually using any of it. (Skepticism is valuable. Everyone should have some. It’s like Math 121 that way.) It’s full of memes. (Not mimes. Fortunately.) It’s full of porn. (Rule 34 applies to the internet, of course. Everyone knows there are no exceptions to Rule 34.) Germaine sums up the whole situation quite nicely.

That’s what it’s full of, but what does it run on? Well, people have claimed that it runs on tears, on cats, on dogs, on sarcasm. Slightly more serious people have pointed at things like operating systems and web server software. Even more serious people claim that it runs on whatever makes them money. Those things aside, what it really runs on is standards.

Because standards are important. Why? Because any time there is more than one of anything and it needs to interact with anything else, a description of HOW the interaction works is needed. (And one thing you can say about the internet is that there’s more than one of, well, everything.)

In short, you need a standard.

When you need a light bulb, there are standards. When you make cheesecake to feed unexpected late-night visitors, there are standards. When you need to send email, there are standards. (Lots of standards. Lots and lots of standards.) Standards are everywhere.

And they come from all over the place. They can be put forward by one person (if we’re lucky, it’s a very clever person). Sometimes they’re created by corporations and institutions who want to be able to make more money. (In the process, sometimes decisions are made for totally unexpected reasons.) Sometimes they’re written by groups of experienced, capable and thoughtful people, sensitive to the needs of the community and the capabilities and limitations of technology who subject their proposals to vigorous peer review. (Can you tell I like that kind?)

And of course, no matter where they come from, sometimes folks ignore them. Because they know better. Or they think they’re above such things. Or they want to make more money. (Corporations hate standards. They can get in the way of making money, after all.)

Anyway, the third process above has led to some incredibly useful stuff. If you’ve ever sent or received an email, you have that process to thank. If you’ve ever connected a computer to the internet, you’ve used a standard created that way. If you’ve ever named a computer

Naming a computer is hard. Well, it’s not really hard — all you have to do is edit a file, after all — but it’s easy to do badly. For example, some years ago I started a job where they had recently acquired a new server. Its name? NEWVAX, because it was new and because it was a Vax. That was all well and good but after a couple of years — heck after the VERY NEXT MACHINE was bought — the name just became silly.

So.

So when Ms. Rose and I had to name twenty-five computers we thought a little (well, maybe more than a little) about what to name them. Because of the room and table dimensions, it became obvious that they would be arranged in four groups of six, with the server in a locked closet in the corner. Fine. So we named the first group of six after characters in Cerebus the Aardvark, the second after characters in the Legion of Super-Heroes, the third after characters in the Justice League, the fourth (you knew it was coming) after characters in the Batman mythos.

Tidy. Ample room for expansion. Hard to confuse with Real Life. Memorable. Rfc1178-compliant. Win.

But there was the server. What should we call it? Pardon me while I reminisce a bit.

Before we were ‘given’ the room, it had held the previous generation of computer lab — a couple of servers, a host of dumb terminals, some graphics gear nailed to a table and a printer or two. It was nothing too fancy, but did the job. Ms. Rose was in charge of the care and feeding of that lab.

One Saturday she got a phone call — the lab wasn’t working properly and could she look at it? Being a responsible sort, off she went. When she got there, she verified that it wasn’t working properly (usually a good first step) and looked around for a reason.

H’m. The servers didn’t seem to be communicating with each other which had caused NFS to hang (it does that, part of its endearing charm) which, in turn, had caused almost everything else to grind to a halt. Okay — problem understood, if not solved. But what had happened? H’m again.

Turned out that there were breaks in the ethernet cable. Well, that would do it. Easy enough to fix, but what had happened? And why was that window open? Perhaps there had been an… intruder. (The screens in that building can be opened from the outside simply by pushing on them, after all.) But why would an intruder cut the ethernet?

Because apparently the piquant bouquet of a moderately aged rg58 is irresistible to sciurus carolinensis, that’s why. A particularly enterprising gastronome had entered the lab through the open window, bypassed the screen and had a late lunch on the ethernet, thereby halting the lab (and coincidentally sending the message that working on computing assignments on a Saturday afternoon was something to be deprecated). After lunch was over he moved on to dessert.

Dessert was the power cord attached to one of the printers. It disagreed with him. In fact, it disagreed with him so much that he never ate anything ever again. Heck, he didn’t even leave the premises — there he was, teeth still firmly clenched on his last post-meal treat.

It was the ultimate in negative restaurant reviews — “I hated the food so much I made the proprietor dispose of a dead body.”

Which caused a new problem. Fixing the lab was fairly simple — string some new cable, reboot a couple of machines, replace a power cord — but there was the little matter of a furry (and, unsurprisingly, somewhat fluffy) corpse. The building janitor was looked for; unsurprisingly (it was Saturday after all) he was nowhere to be found. The buildings-grounds-and-miscellaneous-infrastructure folks were called. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of incidents of unexpected death in university buildings and they had to be convinced this was something they had to deal with. And unfortunately this was before the era of helpful blogs and youtube videos so they didn’t really know what to do. Eventually, though, someone showed up and — with the help of the handy and resourceful IT professional — took the dissatisfied diner away. After that we have no idea what they did with him. (?)

The story spread and was told and retold. (With each retelling it became more vivid and baroque. Eventually Ms. Rose was presented with a home-made stuffed squirrel (not) with Xs for eyes and a chunk of quad sewn into his teeth.) Early in the process, the squirrel was given a name — he became Bunky or sometimes Bunky The Evil Squirrel.

So.

When we needed a name for the server it was only logical to think back to Bunky and give him the (limited, alas — such is the nature of technology) immortality he so richly deserved. The server became ‘decsqurl’, for Dec Server Queen’s Undergraduate and Research Lab. And buried in the DNS was the alias ‘bunky’.

Sometimes choosing a good name is a lot of work. Dead bodies aren’t always involved, though.