Touching 2: it’s not the Empire striking back

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I should be so lucky.

A year and a half ago I had an appointment. With a doctor. In a clinic. In a hospital. When I went to the appointment, two things happened:

  1. I was publicly humiliated by an obsolete PC and a pair of orange shoes.
  2. They sent me home. Despite the fact that I had a little slip of paper that said ‘APPOINTMENT’ on it, I wasn’t ‘in the computer’ so apparently it was wrong. Live and learn I suppose.

Last week I went back. Since it’s the middle of winter and the middle of a cold snap, I didn’t think I had much to fear from orange shoes. The evil PC? Well, I took an extremely clever engineer with considerable IT experience with me. Just In Case. And of course that meant that random comic-related flashbacks were practically de rigueur.

“The two of us side by side against the implacable foe.”
Fred the Hammer

The waiting room was pretty much how I remember it — the same furniture, the same atmosphere of boredom and unfocused dread, the same people, even. (Well, probably not the same people. They just looked the same. I’m confusing my perceptions with reality. Sorry.) And, at the far end of the room was…

the implacable foe. The PC that I was supposed to use to check in. Suddenly I understood why it felt so much like Dreadsylvania.  I advanced on my Nemesis, trying to look confident. After all, I had a secret weapon. It wouldn’t be so bad, would it? In fact, it started out just fine. The touchscreen accepted my input. It accepted my plastic card without commenting that the picture makes me look like a three-day-old corpse. It even read the data from the card. Every step of the check-in process went smoothly and flawlessly. I almost thought that bringing an IT consultant may not have been entirely necessary.

Almost.

Because there was a problem. The final step. The step where you hit the last button to submit all your data and tell them you were there. The only step that matters, really.

It didn’t work.

I hit the button. Nothing. I hit it again. Nada. I hit it again and again. Bupkis. I tried different fingers. I tried a different hand.  I hit it and poked it and prodded it and swiped it and wiped it and stroked it and nudged it and got out a thesaurus and tried every verb that seemed remotely relevant.

Squat. Zilch. Zippo.

That was when Ms. Rose leaned over and touched the ‘Submit’ button. Once. Like you’re supposed to. Worked like a charm.

So on the down side, I was bested — again — by a dumbed-down PC running an application designed to be idiot proof. (I’m not sure that my inferiority complex really needs that level of care and feeding.) On the up side, though, my inadequacy wasn’t laid bare to the whole room of people who had seen it before (I’m doing it again. Sorry.). No, the only person who saw it was the one person I see more than anyone else on the face of the planet. Score.

I guess.

From there it was off to the designed-to-be-uncomfortable waiting room furniture, then the designed-to-make-you-feel-uncomfortable examination room furniture, the ice-cold instruments, the bottle full of pins to be inserted into various extremities, the other machine that goes ping, the white coats, the inexplicably-placed windows, the bludgeons. Stuff. (Not exactly as shown.) But it was all okay, because afterwards I was going to go play hockey.

Except.

We finished with just enough time to walk home, get my hockey bag and make it to the rink on time. But as I went to leave, I was presented with a form. “Give this to the receptionist” he said. I looked confused. I mean, I always look confused, but right then I looked more confused than usual. My skills at repartee weren’t affected, however: “Huh?”  “We want to get some blood.” Oh. Have I mentioned recently how much I hate needles? But, since I occasionally do what I’m told, I gave the form to the nice lady at the desk and she told me to go sit in the designed-to-be-uncomfortable furniture and someone would be right with me.

Depending on your definition of “right with you” she might even have been telling the truth, although hockey was beginning to look a little like a long shot. Another nice lady summoned me into a room where a third nice lady was assembling a frighteningly large pile of empty vials. “That’s a rather large pile of empty vials.” (I can underline the obvious with the best of them.) Apparently I was expected to fill them all. About halfway through the pile I decided that hockey was a really, really long shot. By the end it was fairly obvious that it wasn’t going to happen. My arm was too sore anyway.

So.

I walked a couple of kilometers in twenty below weather, was embarrassed by a computer, got poked and stabbed longer than was entirely comfortable, was drained of a suspicious amount of blood and missed hockey. “This has been a bad day” I thought when riding the elevator down to the street. “Can it get worse?”

We walked out the front door. A gust of wind blew a lump of twenty-below snow off the roof. It fell seven stories and hit me in the head.

Why yes. It can.

 

Outlining

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About a month ago there was a writing prompt/challenge/amuse-bouche that I did not feel particularly prompted, challenged or amused by. It said

When was the last time you wrote something substantive — a letter, a story, a journal entry, etc. — by hand? Could you ever imagine returning to a pre-keyboard era?

That (well, potentially) opened the door to talk about something substantive — about the nature of creativity, perhaps, or maybe technology and its evolution. Or even growth and change if you were feeling ambitious. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of anything to say about any of those — all I could think was ‘two weeks ago’ and I couldn’t conceive of a way to make that remotely interesting, even to myself.

So I am not writing about that.

But I got to thinking. In particular, thought back to high school and the various teachers who tried (with limited success) to instil in me an appreciation for the written word and an ability to create it. There was Mr. S, who put every piece of ‘creative writing’ I ever creatively wrote into a folder. (I graduated with an empty folder.) There was the other Mr. S who habitually wore leisure suits; every morning he would take his jacket off and hang it on his desk chair. Every Friday he would gather up five jackets and take them home. There was Mrs. W who was short and almost comically addicted to nicotine. There was the other one who was so memorable that I have no memories whatsoever of him or her. (On the extremely remote chance you’re reading this, sorry. Not your fault.)

Anyway, all of them tried to impress on me the importance of process, preparedness and probably other stuff that I’ve forgotten. And high in the list of important things was a rigorous, thorough and well-thought-out Outline.

Part of the reasons for that was technology, of course. When all you had was dead trees to work with, editing, revising and modifying was laborious. Preparation (and that included, I was told, The Outline) was clearly a good idea.

Fast forward a few years. In my final year as an undergraduate ‘we’ were encouraged to enter a competition. (Well, the smart kids at the front of the class were encouraged. The dead weight at the back? Not so much.) The challenge was to write five thousand words on the subjects of Science, Myth and Truth. Piece of cake. For somebody else, maybe; I had no plans to enter. It looked like a lot of work (writing is hard and this looked like it called for the dreaded Outline), I was busy as hell and heck, I wasn’t comfortable with writing about anything with a capital letter.

Plans do change, though. The weekend before entries were due happened, against all odds, to be free. Free of assignments. Free of deadlines. Free of commitments. Free of household chores. Even gaming was cancelled. It was unprecedented.

So I was at a loss for something to do. (These days I’d just nap but back then I didn’t really need to. And our TV was broken.) So a crazy thought crossed my mind — maybe I could just knock off five thousand words on the philosophical linkage between Science and Truth before dinner Sunday.

Yeah, right.

But I had nothing better to do so I gathered up some primary sources (they were primary largely because they were short enough to read in the time I had available to me), some secondary sources and borrowed a blue typewriter from the guy that lived across the hall. (I had a typewriter but it was gray — clearly the wrong colour for an essay of this sort as I’m sure you’ll agree.) With no outline, with no plan, with not a shred of an idea about Truth or any other word-with-a-capital-letter I started typing.

After five or six gallons of tea (taken internally) and only slightly less correction fluid (not taken internally) I had a worn-out typewriter ribbon and a headache but I also had a stack of paper (covered in words, even) and a modest sense of accomplishment. I didn’t expect much when I submitted it and quite clearly neither did they. (“You’re submitting an essay? How unexpected, er, wonderful.”) And as long as we’re talking ‘unexpected’, after the judges had, um, judged, guess who was in second place?

So.

I ignored every single rule of creative writing, I dashed off twenty pages of unplanned, unscripted, completely extemporaneous prose on a subject I knew nothing about, I did no editing beyond fixing the typos (well, some of them), there were no revisions, there was no revision control. There was no Outline.  And yet, it paid the rent for a month.

Take that, Mrs. W.

 

Holidaying

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I should be running errands, but I’m not. I am a parasite.

But not totally. I do have the odd redeeming feature. The other day I took the garbage out (well, some of it). Sometimes I wash the dishes. And once in a while I make dinner. (Like last night. I made sandwiches and defrosted soup. Yet again I demonstrate that my uberness in the kitchen knows few bounds.)

Of course, making dinner implies shopping — after all, you can’t cook without ingredients. Before you can break the eggs, you have to buy them. And shopping is often… surreal. Why? Because apparently in supermarkets logic often just doesn’t apply. At the very least, the rules of logic change at the door. Eighteen months ago I made the point, for example, that a supermarket near me used to place lime-flavoured sparkling water several aisles away from lemon-flavoured sparkling water. I’m sure they had their reasons but trying to imagine what those might have been made my head hurt.

To summarize the summary, supermarkets don’t make a whole lot of sense. (And people are a problem — that goes without saying.)

Things get even weirder at certain times of year. A couple of months ago, for example, I went out during the pre-NDGGD furor and it was… odd.

The first thing I saw was a display for delicious holiday logs.

I didn’t really examine the display all that closely. I decided that the adjective ‘delicious’ doesn’t really go with the noun ‘log’ even if you add ‘holiday’ to the mix. Logs are for giving to small children or for frowning owlishly at or maybe for strapping to your Soviet-made armoured vehicle — just not for eating. And what oddity of the season would try to put it on the menu? I thought about that for a while, then I got to the onions.

There was a moderately large pile of them over a sign that said

Tis the season.

Tis the season for onions? All thoughts of the deliciousness of logs fled from my thoughts as I pondered this new information. I mean, onions, like all things grown in the dirt have seasons. But the expression ’tis the season’ generally makes its appearance in the run up to NDGGD. Onions are christmassy? I had no idea.

That train of thought kept me going until I got to the ‘condiments’ aisle, the real reason for my visit to the supermarket in the first place. (Dinner that night demanded fermented cabbage and we were fresh out.) It took me a while to find it because my head was full of festive holiday logs and onions wearing little red and green elf hats but find it I did. They had two kinds. Which one should I pick?

A butcher from The Old Country once told me never to buy sauerkraut in a can. Both of the ones on the shelf were in jars, though, so no help there. One of them was fairly generic sauerkraut made by a fairly generic condiment maker. I’ve had it and it’s not bad at all. The other….

The other kind had a tag rubber-banded to each jar. The tag said, in large red-and-green letters

FOR THE HOLIDAYS

That clinched it.

 

Varying

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I spend a lot of time in the back room which, for historical reasons, is called ‘The Hole.’ Unlike most holes, though, it’s bright and sunny and bright sunny rooms can be good for frequently gloomy middle-aged guys. It’s also full of toys. I like toys. (Of course I like toys. All middle-aged guys, gloomy or not, like toys.) And finally, I have approximately seven metres of music back there.

From this you can conclude at least four things. First of all, listening to music is something that I do. (Sometimes a lot. Sometimes I babble about it.) Secondly, you could conclude that I’ve been around for a while. After all, it takes a reasonable amount of time (or motivation, which we both know I’m not full of) to acquire that much of anything. Thirdly, I’m kind of old school: four shelving units full of media isn’t really necessary in this day and age; what with the general dumbing down of music packaging, the visual and tactile experience of listening to music isn’t what it used to be. (There are still pleasant surprises, of course: last week I was extremely happy to read the words ‘high-redshift galaxies’ in the liner notes of a new album. Apparently a decade studying astrophysics can enhance musical appreciation in totally unexpected ways. Who knew?)  And fourthly, since I used ‘metres’ to describe a quantity of music, it’s clear that I’m fond of accurate, unambiguous and useful units of measurement. (Apropos to nothing, a once-major computer vendor used ‘microfortnights‘ in one of their operating systems. I always did like the cut of their jib.)

And of course, that mass of music is sorted. To a first approximation, anyway. By artist. Even though I am not a Freudian.

Seven metres of music corresponds to 27 centimetres of music per letter of the alphabet. Well, on average — the ‘X’ part of the shelf is a little thin, as is ‘Q’. On the flip side (an expression that probably makes no sense to anyone born in the last forty years), the section for ‘E’ is slightly wider (36 centimetres) than expected and the bottom of the shelf, the part where I put artists-whose-names-start-with-the-letter-Z is significantly more than twice as thick as the average.

Wait, what?

It’s really not all that surprising; back in ’81 an ex-chemist introduced me to an incredibly talented, creative and prolific artist whose name just happens to start with the letter Z. (An artist who, coincidentally, is the subject of today’s T-shirt.) He’s never had a massive fan base and since he died over twenty years ago he probably doesn’t have a lot of fans younger than, say, me.

In late 1969, he released his seventh (?) album, a jazz-fusion gem called ‘Hot Rats’. It’s full of wonderful tracks, but my favorite is probably a ‘little’ (seventeen minutes long) thing called ‘The Gumbo Variations.’ I was listening to it in the car on the way to breakfast a couple of weeks ago.

It being a Saturday, breakfast was at the Insomniac Capriform Cafe. Ms. Rose and I were sitting in a booth (to the monkey’s left, more or less). At a table near us there were two families — two moms, two dads and two babies. The babies were probably in the six-months-to-a-year age range (I’m not real good with babies) and were reasonably well-behaved, it not being an airplane or anything. One was dressed in stripes. The other wasn’t. (Like I said, not real good with babies.) Breakfast was good (it always is) and as I ate my toast, one of the babies opened his (a guess — I told you, I’m not real good with babies) mouth and emitted a note-perfect rendition of Ian Underwood’s saxophone solo from ‘The Gumbo Variations.’ It was eerie.  It was even eerier when you consider that he didn’t have a saxophone.

When I suggested that Frank might not have a lot of fans younger than me I may have been mistaken.

 

Discounting

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Everyone likes a bargain. Be it money, time, resources or whatever, people like to save it.

A deal on something for lunch? Perfect. A good price on a nice dendrobium? Doubleplusgood – my black thumb means that I can always use another one. A copy of a mostly bug-free program for solving the coupled system of nonlinear differential equations that describe the growth of a bubble of false vacuum expanding into a background of true vacuum? I already have one of those, but heck, if that’s not the perfect birthday present I don’t know what is. I’ll take a dozen, all different colours.

Bargains are cool.

You may have noticed that one of these things is not like the others. It’s free software (I wrote it, as far as I know I still have ownership of it and it’s yours if you should happen to need it.) Technically it’s both free software and open-source software; there are subtle distinctions between the two terms. Today’s T-shirt (well, yesterday’s now) is sort of about free software but doesn’t really explain the differences. Bummer.

Software is like sex: it’s better when it’s free.
Linus Torvalds

For a lot of reasons (not just the pithy quote by a guy from Helsinki) I’m a huge fan of both kinds. Sturgeon’s Law applies, course, but then Sturgeon’s Law applies to everything. The best free software is at least as good as the best non-free software. (In some cases better — some iconic pieces of free software are arguably better at what they do than anything else IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. Even I (and I am not a talented programmer by any stretch of the imagination) have occasionally written software (in an afternoon!) that can outperform its commercial counterpart.) I’m not naive enough to believe that free software is the only way to go, of course. I recognize that there are non-free alternatives, some of them quite good. (Some of them, of course, are the only game in town.)

What this all means, though, is that I tend to think about software perhaps more than I need to and I keep my eyes open whenever I see it in an unexpected place: what is it? Is it free? Is it doing a good job? Am I likely to need something like it? If so, where would I look for it?

And so on.

All of this was going through my mind on a sunny morning in the cradle of Canadian confederation. Ms. Rose was doing responsible adult stuff and interacting with human beings while I shambled around town (alone — no unnecessary human interaction for me) with visions of tanks, lawn mowers and carrot cake in my head. It being spring, the ridiculously long NHL playoffs were underway.

I passed a sign, one of those ubiquitous portable signs that are a visual blight on the contemporary urban landscape. It said

Half price apps during playoffs

“Cool” I thought “if a little odd. I mean, why is a restaurant selling software and furthermore, why are they having a sale during hockey games? Would that really bring people in?” I kept walking. And thinking. (At least, I claim it was thinking.) “I wonder what they’re selling. I wonder if it’s any good. There’s a couple of things I could use. Maybe I’ll go there for dinner and see what they’ve got.”

It only took me about two blocks to figure out that they weren’t talking about software so I went to a chip truck instead.