Flogging. (An electrically-powered yet still moribund equine.)

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rant

One should always beware of generalizations.

Well, almost always.

F=ma — except when it doesn’t. Rabbits eat carrots — if they’re drawn that way. The Coriolis effect (not) affects your toilet — in cartoons. Life is full of exceptions. Of subtleties. Of nuance. So it’s best to beware of overly-general statements.

Anyway. All of this is because I was going to start with the statement

I like technology

but I thought better of it — because while it’s sort of true, it’s not always true. To be more precise, I like technology sometimes, particularly if it’s used in a useful, clever or somehow innovative way. (See ‘hack value‘ — I like a good hack as much as the next guy-named-after-a-houseplant.) But technology-for-the-sake-of-technology? Not so much.

Which not-entirely-seamlessly brings me to my nomination for the award for ‘technology most likely to be used in a stupid, useless or inefficient fashion’:

electronic signs.

I’ve whined ranted discussed at length (for example) about how they’ve been used to ‘replace’ blackboards in arenas with a… let’s just say ‘stunning lack of success’. I thought I’d seen every possible way that they could demonstrate their, um, ‘inadequacy’.

Heh. Silly me. I forgot, well, the power of pithy quotes.

A few weeks ago I arrived at the arena on a hockey day and immediately consulted the giant TV screen to see what dressing rooms we had been assigned. Rather than telling me that, the TV showed me who was using the playing field(s) outside the building.

That’s nice — I guess — but I was looking for something with some relevance to, well, me. It’s all about me and *I* wanted one thing and one thing only — the dressing room assignments for the first ice thingy on the left at 4 PM. That’s really not too much to ask.

Or so I thought.

So I stood there, frowning at the sign and willing it to show what I wanted. Obligingly, it (eventually) switched to… the schedule in the fitness centre. Wait, the fitness centre has a schedule? I didn’t know that. Not that I care, but why? Before I could speculate on the answer to that particular question, the TV switched to ‘who was using the meeting rooms for the rest of the day.’ “There are meeting rooms?” I thought. “Why are there meeting rooms in an arena? And why hasn’t the TV showed me information on any, you know, ICE RINKS?” As if on cue, the sign switched to the dressing room assignments for the SECOND rink (not the first) on the left. Well, that’s close to being useful without actually being, you know, of any relevance whatsoever.

I put my bag down — hockey bags are heavy and it was looking like I might be there for a while. And I waited. It eventually switched to dressing room assignments for… the second rink on the right. I sighed. A passing girl pulling a bag with flashing wheels looked at me and rolled her eyes. (And why do figure skaters always have bags with flashing wheels? There’s probably Insight Into The Human Condition to be gained by answering that particular question but so far it’s beyond me — who would need (or want) a battery-powered bag? And why are they (the figure skaters, not the bags) so good at rolling their eyes, anyway?) The screen then moved on to the first rink on the right. A little boy walked by and gave the exasperated-looking old man an exaggeratedly wide berth. “Next must be mine” I concluded. “There’s nothing else it could be.”

Heh.

Because when it changed it moved on to… the playing field(s) outside the building. Again. So after careful consideration of my options, I moved on too.

How did I find ‘my’ room? Well, opening every door one after another is guaranteed to work (a Famous Computer Scientist endorses this algorithm), took less time than waiting-for-the-sign-to-cycle-and-hoping-it-would-show-the-right-rink-next-time and only a few people glared at me. And heck, I’m used to that.

So sometimes an electronic sign can be worse than no sign at all.

In more than one way. For example…

On the way home I thought I heard a distinctive voice sing

It’s the burger that can break a rose’s neck

and I thought “I wonder how a burger could do that. Hey, I could go for a burger.”

That’s not what he said, of course. In my defense, people mis-hear songs all the time. And cars travelling on multi-lane highways where everyone tries to go faster than everyone else aren’t exactly renowned for their perfect acoustics. (The correct lyric can be heard at around the 1:50 mark here.) But no matter the reason, I had a modest burger hankering and no dinner plans so the joint up the street from home seemed like a decent idea. Besides, they don’t have any electronic signs so it should be stress-free.

Of course, things change.

There was the expected young lady at the counter. She seemed efficient, pleasant and Ready To Take My Order. Unfortunately, hanging over her head was an… electronic sign.

Damn. That was new.

And what did it say? Well, it proclaimed that it was 9:17 on Wednesday, January 5th.

Well, it wasn’t 9:17 — it was no later than 7:30. It wasn’t Wednesday — it was Monday (because Monday is hockey day). It wasn’t January 5th because it was sometime in April.

Every one of the ‘facts’ on the sign was incorrect.

Every.

Single.

One.

But that’s not all: January 5th wasn’t a Wednesday — it was a Friday. The last time January 5 fell on a Wednesday was 2011. So not only was everything on the sign incorrect, stuff that wasn’t even on the sign was incorrect.

It takes real talent to get something that isn’t even there wrong.

So. What’s the best you can hope for when you see an electronic sign?

Well.

Back in late winter, one of my local supermarkets (the one mentioned here) installed a massive electronic sign. “Oh no” I thought. “How will they screw this up?” Because I assumed they would.

But they didn’t.

Well, comparatively speaking.

Because the information on the sign has never been wrong. Or misleading. Or an ‘alternative fact.’ Irrelevant perhaps, but that’s all — because there has never been any information — months after its installation, there’s never been anything displayed other than the manufacturer’s ‘attract mode‘. (And it’s not even an interesting attract mode.) So they paid for it, installed it, plugged it in, then… nothing.

Are there other technologies that are ‘likely to be used in a stupid, useless or inefficient fashion’? Of course there are. But electronic signs seem to be examples of ‘the-cool-kids-have-one-so-we-should-too’. The available evidence would suggest, however, that the copycats aren’t as clever as the cool kids. (Maybe that’s why they’re cool? Just saying.)

So I was probably right not to say “I like technology.” Because sometimes I totally don’t.

 

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Motivating. (And counting.) Not really a travelogue at all.

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A couple of weeks back I was sitting at the curling club after beating up some old men and — for reasons I can’t begin to guess — one of them asked me to ‘explain blogging.’ Naturally, I provided a thoughtful, balanced and insightful opinion:

“It’s about narcissism.”

“Is that all? I thought there’d be more to it.”

“Not really. Everyone has at least one thing they can drone on and on about until they fall over backwards. Fortunately, the world is a big enough place that there are bound to be a number of folks out there who are willing to subject themselves to your babbling. Narcissism comes in when you realize exactly how small that number is.”

“What’s yours?”

“My number or my ‘thing’? You may want to consider the phrasing of your answer.”

“Your… er, ‘subject’.”

Which was, of course, the stumper — that’s a question I’ve attempted (multiple times, with a nagging lack of success) to answer. So I just told him ‘public urination’, ate my sandwich and changed the subject. But when I eventually arrived home and collapsed (gracefully, always gracefully) into the Green Chair of Thinkitude I got to (duh) thinking. (Or at least ‘thinking.’) What were the things I talked about the most?

Well. This time I thought I’d use Technology so I could get Numbers. Because I was trained as a physicist and physicists are extremely (perhaps unnaturally) fond of numbers.

First of all I contemplated asking the weeb. I found several promising-looking possibilities (search-fu not totally pathetic) but most weeb programmers these days don’t comprehend plain text and I decided that in any case I wasn’t sure I wanted to hand my accumulated maunderings over to, well, J Random Website. (Plus, of course, it’s a little annoying to cut-and-paste 22,000 lines of text. That may have been the clincher. Laziness is, after all, a virtue so I embrace it whenever I possibly can.)

I then moved on to the old standby of an editor macro. That, of course, worked (because it always does) and I learned (heh) what I wanted to learn. At which point I had a brief flashback to chapter 8 of The Unix-Haters Handbook:

I was happy. I thought it was over.

But then in the shower this morning I thought of a way to do it. I couldn’t stop myself. I tried and tried, but the perversity of the task had pulled me in, preying on my morbid fascination. It had the same attraction that the Scribe implementation of Towers of Hanoi has. It only took me 12 tries to get it right.

In my case a shower wasn’t involved — it was a combination of of man pages, iteration (rather more than 12 tries, though) and google. But eventually I had

tr -c '[:alnum:]' '[\n*]' < blog.postings | sort | uniq -c | sort -nr | less

which I think we can all agree is pretty close to what I want and besides, it fits on one line.

And what did it tell me? Well, the most common word (6767 of them) is ‘the’. Hardly surprising and not particularly enlightening. Next is ‘I’ (5681) (which, I guess, is numerical confirmation that it is about narcissism after all). Then comes ‘a’, ‘of’, ‘to’, ‘that’, ‘and’, ‘it’, ‘was’ — all thoroughly unsurprising and equally unremarkable. But down a bit are some potentially illuminating results — ‘curling’, ‘software’ and ‘learning.’ Well, I’ve mentioned curling and used software, but what about ‘learning?’

Well.

Some months ago, Ms. Rose and I ventured to the left coast to visit and annoy old friends (TV and LM), admire their orange yurt and remind them why the decision to move 5000 kilometres away from me was a sensible one. While we were there I had four learning experiences (five if you count ‘you can grow a tree on top of another tree‘).

The day after the tree-on-the-tree encounter the four of us visited a park near Victoria. From the parking lot it was just over a kilometre downhill to the ocean. Parts of the trail were wide and easy, other parts… not so much. It was nice but when we reached the bottom all I could think was ‘that’s going to be a long climb back up.’

The bottom.

Fortunately one of those learning experiences was waiting at the bottom: as we arrived a group was just starting its ascent — in the group was a little old man. He was significantly littler and older than me.

He had a cane.

He was also smiling.

So not only did I learn something about the nature of the human spirit in the face of adversity blah blah blah, I also received a healthy jolt of encouragement and motivation: if he can do it, I can too.

It made the climb easier.

The gorge. Waterfall not shown so I
wouldn’t have to try and explain where
the name came from.

On the way up, where the trail narrowed and skirted the edge of the gorge below Sitting Lady Falls, we passed a young couple descending. The young lady was obviously happy and relaxed (more relaxed than I was, certainly — the trail wasn’t that wide and it was a gorge after all).

She was also blind.

So again, human spirit, adversity, strength, yadda yadda yadda and, more importantly,

If she can do it, I can too.

I made it to the top in reasonable time, due in no small part to the inspiration provided by the old man and the young girl. One gets one’s inspiration where one can, I guess.

Speaking of which.

At this time of year I play hockey twice a week. Some days, though, it’s hard to muster enough inspiration to lug a large, heavy, smelly bag to the car and dodge everyone leaving work early just so I can be humiliated by people half my age. Sometimes extra motivation is called for; when that happens, I frequently think back to a softball game Ms. Rose and I attended on the trip. TV was playing (and of course I made every possible effort to put his play in the proper context but alas, for an old guy he’s pretty good) but the player I remember most often is the woman who played catcher and didn’t run. Because before the game she had told everyone

My nitro is in my purse.

So when I’m feeling lazy (a virtue, remember) before hockey (or whenever, really) and dreading the exertion, mental pain and exhaustion it will bring, I think back to the old man, the young girl, and the lady with the nitro. And then I get off my ass.

 

Well, usually.

So I learned a bunch of things, things that are actually useful in everyday life. Which is totally cool. (Well, the you-can-grow-a-tree-on-a-tree thing hasn’t really come in handy yet, but hope springs eternal and all that.) Even better, everything was in some way positive: human spirit, motivation, life, growth, overcoming obstacles, fainting goats, stuff like that.

But of course not everything in life is uniformly positive. Was there nothing negative on the trip? Despite the absence of tech support, phone companies and middle managers, yes there was. Because there was…

air travel.

Which history tells me is always likely to teach you something unexpected and unpleasant. And it didn’t disappoint. (Well, it did but it didn’t, if you know what I mean.)

The last ‘leg’ of the trip west was a short (25 minute) flight from an airport with good doughnuts to one with, well, I’m not sure — we weren’t there long enough to form an opinion. Being a short flight, we were on a smallish (50 passengers or so) flying death tube.

In row 13, our paperwork said.

Now, I know a thing or two about numbers. In particular, I know that 13 is one more than 12. (I went to graduate school. I know things.) So Ms. Rose and I headed down the tiny (slightly narrower than… well, I can’t think of a suitable metaphor, but it was sure narrow) aisle toward the back of the plane. We got to Row 12 and then there was…

a wall.

There was no Row 13. Well, that was unfortunate. Did they not know how many seats were on the plane? Well, that would be a believable level of ineptitude, but this aircraft has been in service for more than thirty years; even an airline would have figured it out by now. Did they sell us seats that didn’t exist? I’ve seen that in a sporting venue but in this context it seemed… unnecessarily dickish, even for an airline. Did they switch planes on this route to one with a different number of seats? Without telling anyone? That seemed just dickish and inept enough to be a workable theory.

So. The next step seemed to be ‘talk to someone in a uniform’ and, as luck would have it, there was more than one. But getting to them required navigating up the ridiculously narrow aisle, past all the other passengers who were understandably peeved at someone going the ‘wrong’ way. It took a while but at the front we found

  • Uniforms
  • Row 13. (In front of Row 1.)

So I learned some totally unexpected math:
13 \ne 12+1
13 = 1-1

Apparently airlines have the same attitude toward math as Barbie.

 

Wronging

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Once I thought I was wrong…

Back in prehistory  the olden days the 70s I knew a few people that had T-shirts that bore the (theoretically) humourous statement

Once I thought I was wrong — but I was mistaken.

(I’ve never had one even though the available evidence suggests that they’re still around.)

I thought about them because I recently had reason to doubt a statement I made about four years ago. At that time I contemplated snow, classic movies and significant concepts in computer science and came to the conclusion that

Expensive cars can make you stupid.

My episode of self-doubt (well, one of them — I have a lot of episodes of self-doubt) happened when I was on the way to see a nice lady about a cow. (She seemed to think I was someone named Angela. Do I look like an Angela to you?)

Anyway.

On the way there I was sitting in traffic when the driver of a $56,000 car in the lane to my left suddenly woke up, realized he (I’m gender stereotyping again. Sorry.) needed wanted to turn RIGHT NOW and cut across two lanes of almost bumper-to-bumper vehicles in order to do so. (On the plus side he did signal — when he was roughly halfway through the first lane and had almost hit two people. That’s something, I guess.) (Well, no. It’s not. I’m all for setting the bar low but not that low.) Of course I immediately (well, after swearing a bit) thought about expensive cars. And T-shirts.

Expensive cars can make you stupid.

Yes it’s nasty and judgmental but in my defense I did say ‘can’ and not ‘do’. Perhaps it’s too nasty and judgmental, but on the other hand Mr. 56k suggests perhaps it’s not nasty and judgmental¬†enough. On the other other hand, there’s the first part of the T-shirt: “Once I thought I was wrong…” Why did I think I might be wrong? Well, a couple of weeks before Mr. 56k I was walking down the street after having a very pleasant breakfast of baby sheep on toast when I happened to pass a $128,000 car parked legally (and dare I say efficiently) by the side of the street. Not only that, it had the license plate ‘WEINER’, suggesting to me that the owner had (a) a moderate (and somewhat unexpected) level of self-awareness, (b) a reasonably well-developed, somewhat self-deprecating sense of humour in addition to his apparent competence with his vehicle and (c) a not excessive sense of entitlement.

“Cool” I remember thinking “Maybe I have been too nasty and judgmental towards owners of pricey wheels.”

Which brings me to the second half of the T-shirt: “…but I was mistaken.” As mentioned, Mr 56k was a clue. But, you know, I’m not as quick as I used to be — more clues are needed. Rule of three, maybe?

Yah, let’s go with that.

After seeing the nice lady about the cow, I decided I was short of cash so I went to the most convenient machine-that-gives-you-money on the way home. While I was there someone followed me in and parked. Unlike me, though, he didn’t choose to park in a Spot — you know, inside those lines they paint on the ground to enforce conformity prevent anarchy minimize bloodshed. Instead, he surveyed the entire lot and chose a rectangle of pavement outside of every single line in the place, a spot that just happened to block (but not completely — I guess the little people were supposed to be grateful for his magnanimity) all ingress and egress to/from the bank. He (not an assumption based on stereotyping this time) then exited his vehicle and went about his business.

Estimated worth of car? Something north of $50,000. (Sorry for the lack of precision — I didn’t get the exact model number. Too many birthdays, I guess.)

But it occurred to me that that might not be due to vehicularly-impaired intelligence; it might just be entitlement, arrogance and a crippling (I would have assumed) lack of self-awareness. But my theory was about intelligence.

Well.

One of life’s autumnal rituals (at least hereabouts) is the gathering and disposal of the detritus shed by The Urban Forest. Or, to put it another way

Raking those expletive-deleted leaves.

The process/protocol/ritual for this has changed over the years — I’ve talked a bit about it but these days I periodically drive carloads of decaying organic matter to a giant mud pit and frolic in the ooze while being unnecessarily judgmental towards other people doing the same thing in more appropriate footwear.

Except for this year: during leaf-raking season the weather was slightly drier than usual so the giant mud pit was a giant dirt pit with only one (presumably mandated for its comedic potential, if nothing else) puddle in it. When I arrived on my last trip of the year there was, surprisingly, no one else there. Since I claim to be (at least intermittently) not totally unintelligent, I chose a spot not in the puddle and started to unload my leaves. (And toxic grenades. That pretty much goes without saying.) When I was about half done, a second car drove into the giant, almost-empty dirt pit. It was an expensive car (my estimate is around $74,000 but the dealer website suggests that it could be significantly more; either way it was more than a year’s pay from any job I’ve ever had in my entire life). You can guess where he parked — in the only mud puddle in the entire place. He then stood in (cold) ankle-deep muddy water to unload his cargo.

So.

Once I thought I was wrong — but I was mistaken.

And expensive cars can still make you stupid.

 

Making. And rather a lot of paddling.

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Thirty years ago a bunch of things happened. The first naked-eye supernova since 1604 (a long time ago — before Galileo built his telescope, even) appeared in the southern sky. (Apparently one of my favorite albums was a key part of the discovery process. Learn something every day, I guess.) The system where this text is being edited was created. And my one and only piece of something-not-totally-unlike-matchmaking bore fruit nuptials (#2 — completely accidental, I assure you). It all started on a warm summer day a few years earlier.

Once upon a time there was a poo-coloured building next to a bile-coloured one. (They’re both still there if you care to look. Over the years I’ve occasionally curled with the (then) owner of the poo-coloured one; he’s getting on but is still active. I’ve never met the owner of the bile-coloured one.)

Nobody lived in the bile-coloured building (since it housed a funeral home there wasn’t really much in the way of accommodations there for, you know, live people) but the poo-coloured one had a host of mostly alive and kicking inhabitants. There was a professor with a moustache. There was a stoner without one (who lived with his mother — maybe she didn’t like them). There was a budgie named Cornflake. And there were two kinda nerdy gradual students in apartment 12 — a taller, better socialized one and a somewhat shorter but significantly more misanthropic one who wasn’t yet named after a houseplant. As it happens, that one had a friend (A physicist? With a friend? InconCEIVable.) who was (significantly) shorter still, who was a doctor not a gradual student and who was even a girl. One day Mr. Misanthrope got a phone call from Dr. Even Shorter.

“M? ES here. I’ll be passing through your dreary little burg with my posse on Saturday and I thought I could stop by. You could make tea.”

The Saturday arrived and, being an idle layabout (autocorrect suggests ‘ladybug’ but I’m pretty sure that’s not an appropriate replacement), Mr. M decided to go sailing before the arrival of Dr. ES because his dreary little burg was (and still is) a good place to do that sort of thing. He left plenty of time because Dr. ES was known to get a little testy at times, especially if kept waiting. Unfortunately, when he was about seven kilometres from his boat’s ‘home’ (really just a patch of concrete with a number painted on it) the wind decided to call it a day. Lake Ontario became a sheet of glass. That almost never happens.

“That almost never happens” Mr. M said to himself. “I guess I’ll just have to paddle back. Good thing I left myself plenty of time.” Then he discovered that, no doubt because of his near-legendary attention to detail, he had left his paddle in the trunk of the car.

Uh oh.

So Mr. M lay down on the front of his boat and started paddling. With his hands. It worked, but was not what you’d call ‘breakneck’.

Meanwhile, back at the poo-coloured building, Mr. Taller Gradual Student went about his day, blissfully unaware of the life-changing event bearing inexorably down on him.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door. He answered it and discovered a diminutive physician and her coterie of loyal henchlings (this was in the days before the word ‘minion’ had entered common usage). “Where’s that no-account M? He’s supposed to be making tea.” “He’s not back yet. He went sailing.” Slightly mollified, Dr. ES and her wingmen filed in. (What happened after that is a bit of a mystery but I’m told it included a scene something like this.)

Eventually Mr. M ceased being a gradual student and moved to a little house two kilometres away from the poo-coloured building. Mr. TGS also ceased being a gradual student and moved rather farther — about a hundred miles up the road. Some years later (which brings us back to thirty years ago) he put on a red necktie and married Dr. ES. And they lived happily ever after.

I mean, as far as I know. Hopefully there was tea.

 

Glass(es)ing

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What’s the difference between overalls and coveralls?

Just as you might expect, it’s one of those cases where the answer appears to be ‘it depends.’ (Oh, all right. The most common distinction hereabouts is that ‘coveralls’ are more or less boilersuits and ‘overalls’ are those pant thingies with the attached bib-and-suspenders, typically worn by clownish rustics in bad comedies or murderous psychopaths in horror films. I was thinking of this because…)

I wear glasses. Well, some of the time. I’ve mentioned this before. When I was young I didn’t wear them much, preferring to put them on only when they were needed. Well, the more things change — these days I also don’t wear them much but now the reason isn’t adolescent vanity or stubborn denial.

It’s presbyopia.

(I’m one of the lucky ones: I’ve so far not needed reading glasses. It’s been enough to take my regular distance glasses off, leave them somewhere stupid and then become helpless and unable to leave the house for three days when I can’t remember where I left them. Oh well, I don’t need them to play video games. Silver lining, I guess.)

I can’t really remember how old I was when I got my first pair — my best guess is around fourteen. (Hence the ‘adolescent vanity’ reference above — at the time the ugly glasses of the 1960s were gradually being replaced by the ugly glasses of the 1970s and I was somehow convinced that all of them made me look nerdy and pathetic. Which brings me to the ‘denial’ part… I’ve grown up a little since then. A little.)

I don’t remember what I was wearing That Day — based on the era, it was probably a pair of ill-fitting polyester knit pants, possibly in houndstooth, with an equally ill-fitting shirt in a clashing colour and pattern. (Think Robert Carradine in ‘Revenge of the Nerds’. It was an ugly time.)

Everything else I remember pretty well. I crept into the mall (malls are almost as soul-destroying as airports but in those days there was a small Ottawa-area chain of opticians and that’s where their local storefront was) much like a prisoner on death row heading toward an appointment he’d really rather skip. (Fortunately, the term ‘Drama Queen‘ wasn’t really a thing in those days so I didn’t really know I was being one.) Into the storefront I went.

“I’m here to end any possibility of having a social life.”

The nice optician nodded. “Have a seat. Name?” He disappeared into the back and came back with an envelope. (Huh. It seemed too small to crush all my hopes and dreams but heck, it was the seventies; everything was miniaturized.) He took my albatrosses out of the envelope, put them on my head, frowned, adjusted, bent, fiddled, frowned again and then asked

“How do they feel? Can you see okay?”

I thought so. I looked around the room – everything seemed clear, everything seemed fine, until I looked down and to the left.

There on the carpet was…

a chimpanzee.

In overalls. That fit. And matched his shirt. And didn’t scream ‘dweeb.’

It somehow figured that a hallucination would be better dressed than I was. (Story of my life, really.) But speaking of hallucinations, I’m pretty sure they weren’t listed as a possible consequence of eyewear. That seemed unfair.

“I can see okay but I think I’m seeing things that aren’t there.”

The nice optician looked confused. “Say what?”

“Well, I see a chimpanzee in overalls.” I prepared myself for the inevitable discussion on the difference between overalls and coveralls, which one was more fashionable and which one was more appropriate for an imaginary primate to wear but the discussion never happened. Instead, the nice optician looked down and said

“Oh, hi Oscar.”

Wait, what? He saw it too? And knew its name? Not only were hallucinations not one the advertised features of glasses, but shared hallucinations? Who ever heard of such a thing? Maybe it was really there? That seemed patently ridiculous — a chimpanzee in overalls visiting an optician? Glasses-induced shared hallucinations were more likely, I felt sure.

Eventually it was explained to me that no, I wasn’t hallucinating: Oscar lived with the owners of the pet store next door and most days he’d go to work with them. From time to time he’d go for a walk and flaunt the fact that he was better dressed and better looking than most of the teenagers in the mall.

Not to mention glasses-free so he didn’t look like a dork.

I still wear glasses but I’m still less well-dressed than most chimps you’re likely to imagine see.