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I am not…

There’s a lot of things I’m not. I am not an athlete. I am not a cow. I am not a Freudian. I am not a birder. There’s lots of things that I am not. Heck, the string ‘I am not’ appears more than twenty times on this blog.

grep 'I am not' blog.postings | wc -l

I am also not a photographer. Because of that, usually the weekly photo challenges that the nice people at ‘The Daily Post‘ create get read, filed away and eventually deleted. “That’s nice” I sometimes think; “If I was a photographer I might do something about that.” But I’m not.  So I don’t.

But this week, well, it was sort of a ‘meta-challenge’ in which sewers were involved (sort of) and that piqued my interest. Even though I’m not a photographer.

Sewers were involved because the city where I live has subterranean infrastructure dating from — in places — the Qing dynasty so every year during road construction season things get… dug up. A few years back it was our street’s turn so it got dug up. Heck, every street in the neighborhood got dug up. And, most importantly to the story, the front yard — the one composed entirely of crabgrass — got dug up.

Now, we weren’t sad to see the crabgrass go but when the digging was finished we had a choice: we could fill in the holes and rebuild the lawn — a lawn like every other house in an N block radius — or we could forego conformity (even though it would be a crabgrass-free conformity) with the North American ideal and plant something else.

How about roses? I like roses and, while you do need to prune them and trim them and feed them, you don’t need to mow them. So roses it was.

We planted a few red ones because all the books say that’s essential but mostly yellow, orange and white ones. (Because at least one of those books says yellow roses are ‘as clear and bright as a sunny day’ and who doesn’t like those?)

Four years ago I was looking for something to plant in one of the spaces between bushes. And one day I bumped into a nice-looking rudbeckia just sitting there begging to be taken home. It looked like about the right size to fit the space and all the photos on the internet (because if it’s on the internet it must be true) looked nice and the colour would fit the ‘theme’ of the rose garden. Sold.

That year it did nothing. It didn’t die or anything, it just didn’t do anything. In particular, it didn’t flower. The next summer was more or less the same — it grew a little taller and a little healthier, but still didn’t flower. (Well, with me, ‘didn’t die’ is a modest success.) And the next summer it went “Well, I’ve done nothing for two years. Time to earn my keep.” It grew about twice as tall as the card (and the internet) said it would and also pooted out an impressive array of very nice purple flowers.

Purple? But the card said yellow… Don’t believe everything you read, I guess.

The next year (that would be, like, now) it did/is doing the same thing — twice as tall as the card said, tower-y rather than mound-y, purple rather than yellow. And most days the flowers are visited by several members of the bombini tribe. That’s nice because there hasn’t been many of them for some years. (I’m not naive enough to think ‘they’re back, crisis over’ — it’s more likely that there’s just a nest somewhere nearby — but it’s still nice. Cherryesque, even.)


The rose garden is the cherry on top of the shiny new water line that replaced the old, dull, probably lead one.

The garden is pretty — certainly prettier than the crabgrass was — and the not-really-cherry-coloured-but-closer-than-yellow-would-be flowers are the tallest things in the garden, so they’re sort of ‘on top.’

And our yellow-and-black dinner guest (?) was the cherry on top of that.


Did you know that when you tell an insect to turn around because you can’t see its face it rarely listens to you?


Close enough.

Harking — Yet Another Travelogue

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It’s July. And July means a bunch of things.

It means spring is over — it’s now summer and that means the cicadas are buzzing and I can start mowing the lawn a little less, um, continuously. It means roses in the front yard. It means trophies, including my absolutely all-time favorite one. (My fingers grew back, thanks for asking.). And it means birthdays. Our friend to the south has one. ‘We‘ have one (good to know). And Ms. Rose’s cousin from Delaware has one.

Wait, what?

To explain — Ms. Rose has a rather large extended family (‘…cousins as far as the eye can see…’) that has several branches, one of which is more or less concentrated in French Canada. Several of its members helpfully told the Cousin From Delaware that, should he head to Canada for his birthday, fireworks could be guaranteed. Everyone involved seemed to think this was both reasonable (because he shares a birthday with Canada) and a good idea (because everyone likes fireworks and parties) so… Plans Were Made. People would rendezvous in Quebec City where there would be social interaction, eating, drinking and yes, blowing stuff up. Ms. Rose, not being misanthropic at all, added her name (and mine) to the list of attendees.

And so, shortly before The Birthday Of Our Country And Also The Cousin From Delaware, we made preparations: we (well, mostly me) bought cookies. We (guess who) loaded the car with beverages, mostly ones containing massive amounts of caffeine. We (not me this time — I can’t do everything) looked at maps so we’d actually, you know, understand where we were going and how to get there. And then we hit the road.

Now, the fastest route to Quebec City involves a high-speed multi-lane roadway named after a dead politician. (I’ve mentioned it before as being replete with flammable infants.) The second fastest route involves another fast, efficient (and possibly spore-free) road, this one named after a dead singer. But, our judgment clouded by dead poets, we chose a road named after a dead king (and not a live goaltender as I had initially thought) which meant that we had to fight our way through Montreal rather than going around it. Montreal can be scary so we were pleasantly surprised that nothing fell on us along the way, no roads were awash with anything… pungent and no parades of resigning politicians blocked our route.


Even better, we rendezvoused with a nice doggie named after one of the better dead presidents, one that knew a thing or two about roads and highways. The doggie didn’t help nearly as much as I thought he would but despite the lack of canine assistance (despite his namesake’s near-legendary ability to organize and plan he was shockingly unfocused), the choice of route proved to be a good one. It was slow (it took a long time to ‘leave’ Montreal then passed through every single small town on the north shore of the St. Lawrence river), it was under construction (to be fair, every second road in Canada is under construction during the summer and the other half probably should be except that road construction is expensive) and being narrow it was easy to get stuck behind slow-moving halfwits

No goaltenders, kings or tomcod anywhere.

No goaltenders, kings or Microgadus to be seen.

(fortunately, I was the slowest, half-wittiest person on the road that day). But the cornflowers had started blooming (it looked like the road was bordered by girls in prom dresses), there were interesting places to eat (ie not road food) and we passed the best place in the entire world to fish for Tommy Cod (just in case I ever need to).

So again — Score!

Eventually we arrived. Quebec City is both the same as I expected and at the same time quite different. I mean, at some level all cities share some of the same characteristics (a traffic jam is a traffic jam is a traffic jam) so are in some ways indistinguishable. But when you superimpose the similarities on a four hundred year old city that happens to be the heart of French history and culture in North America well, it’s different. From the gilded saint

Every morning I looked out the window to find myself being watched by a saint with a dog.

Every morning I looked out the window
to find myself being watched by a saint
with a dog.

(with a doggie — don’t forget him) that greeted me with a disapproving gaze greeted me every morning to the Schrodinger wave equation carved into the side of a building next to a pottery show almost everything was a little… different. Not better, you understand. Or worse. Just different. Unexpected. Sometimes even peculiar. Like the art museum in a (fortunately repurposed) prison. Or the sculpture (on a historic battlefield) of an orchestra composed entirely of penguins. There were a lot of moments when I would just stop and think ‘well, that’s not something you see every day.’


Jean-Paul Riopelle, Poussière de soleil. It hangs in a converted prison.

Jean-Paul Riopelle, Poussière de soleil. It hangs in
a converted prison.

(As opposed to the times when I would be climbing a hill and just stop so I wouldn’t fall down. It’s a terrific place to walk — just maybe not an ideal one if you’re, um, ‘of a certain age.’)

Not everything was different and unexpected, of course. For example, one unnecessarily hot afternoon I was walking (or, if I’m being totally honest, tottering) down Rue Notre Dame to buy an angel when I stopped to (a) admire Parc de la Cetière and (b) rest so I wouldn’t fall down. That was when I spotted the only person in Quebec City walking more erratically than I was. Since the trip had been short of moments of Schadenfreude I understandably looked more closely.

It was a young lady, probably a third my age, dressed all in white who was navigating — not at all well — seventeenth century cobblestones while sporting the highest, narrowest (and pinkest) heels I had seen in a long, long time. I reflected that I walk like a decrepit old man because, at some level, I am one. But the young lady walked like a decrepit old man because… she wanted to.

I really don’t understand people.

Eventually, though, after cobblestones and hills and museums and galleries and angels and Schadenfreude and mentally deficient barnyard animals there was The Birthday Party for the Cousin From Delaware. It was a good party, held in the shadow of two giant pieces of aluminum from France. And, as promised, there were fireworks. I’m far from an expert on such things (and it’s hard to compare them to sepia-tinged memories) but to my mind it was the best fireworks display I’ve seen in at least fifty years.

The multiple heritages of this country and their uneasy coexistence are, in many ways, central to the Canadian identity. When I looked at the best

Fireworks over Jean-Pierre Morin's 'Waterspout.'

Fireworks over Jean-Pierre Morin’s ‘Waterspout.’

damn fireworks I’d seen in half a century and the uncomplicated joy on the faces that were watching them with me I began to think that this country might just last. Happy 149th, Canada, and best wishes for the next 149.

Then I came home and hung the angel where I’ll see it every single time I walk to my desk. So far it hasn’t failed to make me smile.

Luc Tessier, 'L'ange annonciateur.' It hangs, not in a jail but four paces to the right of The Green Chair of Thinkitude.

Luc Tessier, ‘L’ange annonciateur.’ It hangs, not in a
jail but five paces to the right of The Green Chair of


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absurdities / rant

Intelligence is rare.

The other day (Well, it was a little longer than ‘the other day.’ One of the many consequences of age — and it’s nowhere near the worst one — is the ‘compression’ of past events so that something that happened a long time ago ‘feels’ like last week — or even yesterday. It kinda sucks but a lot of things suck worse. I’m not alone in this — even technology sometimes suffers from the same problem and it doesn’t have nearly the same repertoire of excuses that I do.)


I recently made the claim (before veering off on irrelevant tangents like this one) that intelligence was an important aspect of humanity. Intelligence by itself isn’t enough, though — there also has to be a will to use it. (This is less common than you might think — just last week an annoying (redundant, I know) celebrity was caught on national television saying “What’s the point of thinking?” (I knew there was a reason I didn’t like celebrities. He was at least partly thinking of twitter when he said it. I don’t like twitter either.) In addition to the existence of intelligence and the will to use it, judgment is also needed — intelligence has to be used intelligently. If that even makes sense.

I was sort of thinking of something like this when I was walking down the tunnel at the train station. (I was there to find a computer scientist.) The train station has two sets of tracks and two platforms with a tunnel connecting them. If your computer scientist is arriving on the far track you take the tunnel. Easy peasy. Even for decrepit old guys like me.

A tunnel sort of implies stairs and stairs (unsurprisingly, two sets) there are. Plus escalators that are somehow never running when I have to carry something heavy. Funny how that works. Over the escalators there’s a sign that tells you to hold onto the handrail.

All things considered, that’s maybe a little preachy but probably not bad advice overall. It’s certainly a sign of will and it might even be a sign of intelligence. (On reflection, it’s probably just corporate ass-covering so maybe not.) But how about the ‘judgment’ part? About ‘using intelligence intelligently?’


As mentioned, the words on the sign said to hold on to the handrails. But words aren’t necessarily enough in a train station which is presumably frequented by, you know, travelers. Who may not all be fluent in one or both of the Canadian Official Languages. So an explanatory picture is probably called for.

That seems, um, intelligent so far. But…

The picture is of a stick figure (with a line through it) carrying two suitcases. Now, I went to grad school so I’m moderately well educated and reasonably confident that I’m not a complete dolt. So what did that picture mean to me? Well, my first thought was that it meant that people with two pieces of luggage would be bisected.

(Or maybe dismembered. I get those two confused sometimes.)

Of course, it may not imply violence — it might mean ‘People with two bags can’t use the escalator.’ Or maybe even ‘Only one piece of luggage allowed.’ I stood there (the computer scientist’s train was late) and assembled quite a lengthy ‘barometer list‘ of possible meanings.

And not a single damn one of them had anything to do with holding handrails.

I knew intelligence was rare. I didn’t know exactly how rare.

Maybe I’ll go try to teach a two year old how to say ‘doom.’



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Back in March I talked about a war raging in my back yard; a war between Man — or at least a man — and Nature — or at least one of her smaller (fortunately) killing-and-maiming machines. (I even used the word ‘archetypal’ in a largely unsuccessful attempt to sound educated and erudite.) It’s a small war, to be sure but that’s good — after all, my back yard isn’t all that big. Still, it has room for the odd Epic Story.

(Of course, I have enough self-awareness to realize that I probably need to do a minor Humpty Dumpty on the word ‘epic’ (and probably ‘archetypal’ as well, now that I think of it).)


It’s a war and the war — like wars often do — continues with no end in sight. Not a lot happened over the winter but with the changing of the seasons things have started to (heh) heat up. (And in more ways than one two — last year’s ninja-esque assassin has acquired a girlfriend (or a boyfriend I suppose — I’m not real good at sexing ninjas) so I suspect that an entire clan of tiny slavering hitmen (Oh god, I hope not) can’t be that far away. (Five weeks, google tells me.)) This year’s skirmishes have been mostly just that — skirmishes. The slavering monster tried to ambush me by lurking in the hemerocallis. I saw him (poor camo rating) and sprayed him with water, probably missing but forcing him to retreat. One of his buddies tried to destroy my food supply but got fifty thousand Scovilles in the face when he tried it a second time. Another of his buddies moved a plant to where I trip over it all the time. (I’ll cut it down someday so that stops happening.)

Like I said, skirmishes. They send the message that the war is still on without doing significant damage.

But another thing about wars — new ‘players’ often get involved. Take World War I, for example. It started — sort of — when a consumptive teenager killed a couple of people (not exactly) old enough to be his grandparents. One thing led to another and two months later armies were marching across Europe. Four years after that, dozens of countries from all over the world (including, I just learned, Honduras — I guess the internet isn’t just for porn) entered the war in some way.

See? Wars spread.

The same thing (well, sort of) happened in my back yard. What started with repeated homicidal attacks by a single determined individual expanded to become a family affair (I’ll have to start calling them Buffy and Jody) and then they brought in some of their buddies. Well, that happens and while it makes it slightly more dangerous to go out the front door (let alone the back one), it was largely the same kind of danger. I could expect ground-based ambushes and attacks on my logistical assets. Annoying, potentially painful but no big surprises.

Two weeks ago that changed.

I was walking across the back yard to see if my plant-named-after-a-shaman had made its appearance; it’s usually the last thing to appear in the spring. (I remembered to walk around the plant-intended-to-trip-me, thanks for asking.) It was up, which made me happy — not only is it attractive, it’s also a little hard to find so it’s good that it survived the winter. Heck, it might even be spreading a bit. Cool. (It’s also been used to treat typhus and you never know when you might need that sort of thing in a protracted war.)


Not the battlefield in question. No Eutrochium,
no Eupatoreum, no moose damage, no ravening
monsters. But any excuse to put up a picture of
irises is a good one.

After checking on it and pausing to ponder the botanical differences between Eutrochium and Eupatoreum, I turned to see if a little yellow flower (not the one named ‘stinking Benjamin’ — that one is purple) had recovered from that time I dropped a moose on it.

That’s about the time that there was an audible ‘thud’. Something surprisingly large had hit me surprisingly hard in the back of the head. Unsurprisingly, I staggered.

There was a flurry of activity from the back of my head — whatever it was was stuck in my hoodie (the one with the logo of a beer company on the front, although I can’t for the life of me imagine why that might be relevant) and really wasn’t happy about it. (It was supposed to be a quick hit-and-run attack. Becoming trapped in promotional clothing wasn’t part of the Plan.) It shrieked and flailed about. I shrieked and flailed about. The folks playing tennis next door smirked — it’s not often they get a show — and flailed about. (As far as I could tell, everyone and everything in a two block radius flailed about.) Eventually I stopped flailing (and staggering) and my attacker stopped flailing (but not shrieking), dislodged himself from my neck and flew to a nearby tree. That’s when I got my first look at him: I’m not entirely sure, but it might have been Terence.

So I learned three things.

  • The war is still on and the slavering monster has recruited avians.
  • Being hit in the head by a red bird hurts more than you might think.
  • Although I’ve been called a pig, um, more than once, that was the first time I’ve been called a pig by a bird.

War is hell.



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The tyranny of the blank page.

H’m. I remember hearing this, um, a long time ago — back in the day when writing was typically done with a massive (meaning REALLY REALLY HEAVY when carried to school — words like ‘portable’ and ‘quiet’ meant something completely different in the 1950s) chunk of metal, cruft and bakelite on mashed up dead trees. (It probably predates that, of course, but I’m, um ‘mature’, not actually antediluvian. All I know is that it was something that Mrs. N sometimes said when she was trying to teach a room full of surly adolescents how to use those blocks of metal for their intended purpose and not for bashing each others heads in. (Not that I ever did that, of course.) Mrs. N was exceptionally nice.)

But back to tyranny and blanks and pages — where exactly did the expression come from? I (naively) thought that it would be easy to find out, but I spent a surprising amount of time with more than one search engine — and failed. Even if I knew, its meaning has certainly changed over time. Does an empty editor window count as a blank page for the purposes of this apothegm?  Apparently at least some people think it does. A fairly typical advice page says that part of the tyranny lies in “watching that cursor blink at you up there at the top of the screen.” (I found it interesting that this piece had no mention of paper anywhere — apparently in some people’s mind the word ‘page‘ is completely divorced from a physical thing.) Three things immediately come to mind:

  • On the machine where I type this, a page is 4k (bytes). So a blank page is 4096… what, exactly? Nulls? Probably not. Deceased bovines? Good chance — you can blame the Great Blue Satan for that. One thing I’m fairly sure of, though — it’s not blanks. H’m — a ‘blank page’ almost certainly contains no blanks — are irony and tyranny related? If so, how? Did Mr. S know? Why didn’t he tell us? And does the page size affect the tyranny? I mean, it wasn’t always 4096 — on the first Real Computer I ever had sitting on my desk a page was 512 bytes. Is 512 less tyrannical than 4096? If so, how much? 8 times? Or is tyranny non-linear? Because non-linear often means ‘more complicated.’
  • I don’t use a blinking cursor — is that important? Is an unblinking box more or less tyrannical? Is colour important? (Mine is green. It goes with my chair.) That shouldn’t affect the actual page (it being in a different country and all) but maybe it does. And he says ‘top of the screen’ — can the tyranny be changed with a few well-chosen escape sequences? That would be unexpected. Clearly, there’s room for some research here.
  • Am I over thinking things again? Because I do that sometimes.

H’m. The page isn’t blank any more. Cool. How did that happen?

I don’t feel any less tyrannized, though.