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Train in vain

Posted by Marlinee on Oct 5, 2014 in Travels

I rode on a berserk subway train the other day. At every stop the woman inside the PA machine issued a different Cassandra-like announcement: “this train is delayed due to weather” “this train is delayed due to mechanical difficulties” “this train is delayed due to signal problems” “this train is delayed due to passenger illness” “this train is delayed due to smoke at track level” etc. There are several things I find disconcerting about this experience, not the least of which is that these announcements came through clear as a bell, something that never happens in an actual delay. Here are some other things that occurred to me.

1. Somebody somewhere must have made a list of all of the reasons a train might be delayed in order to have these pre-recorded announcements handy. I can imagine there must be hundreds of different reasons why the subway would grind to a halt. Things like “this train is delayed because some jerk held the door open” or “this train is delayed because a mouse got stuck inside the wheel well’. I picture a room full of men (because only men would care about this kind of thing) generating the list of disasters then arguing about which ones are sufficiently disastrous to make the final finite list.

2. Probably a different somebody somewhere has to choose the most appropriate reason for any given delay from the vast collection of reasons. I can imagine that sometimes this is difficult. First, because you have to get the announcement on right away so there is some pressure to press the right button quickly. Second, because there may be some nuances of the delay situation that require choosing between several related messages. For example, “this train is delayed due to flooding” versus “this train is delayed due to water at track level”. This type of stress must surely command a huge salary.

3. The amount of effort being spent on obsessing about telling us about delays would indicate that the transit system believes that delays are an inevitable and even a normal occurrence that will continue to persist. I respectfully suggest that spending more cycles on preventing the delays than explaining them would be a better use of the time.

4. Actually, why is it even necessary to communicate exactly why our subway train has come to a grinding halt mid-commute? The only information that has some value is when (or whether) the train will move again. Which is also the only information they never seem to be able to accurately tell us, or if they do, it is impossible to hear it.

5. There is yet another career path that has passed me by: dire announcements announcer. Or actually, pre-recorded dire announcements announcer. Imagine being able to do all of your work without needing to do anything or be anywhere? You literally ‘phone it in’. Nice work if you can get it.

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We be jammin’

Posted by Marlinee on Sep 28, 2014 in Middle Age

Last week I went down to the freezer in the basement to look for something to cook for dinner. It turns out I am more in the habit of putting things into the freezer than taking them out, since the package of meat – at the top of the pile, by the way – was dated November 2007. Or old enough to ride a two wheeler without training wheels. That’s kind of the problem with freezers. Stuff disappears into their frosty jaws, never to be seen again except when it is way past time to throw them out.

I suppose it makes us feel prepared to have things in the freezer. You never know when you might need to assemble a meal without time to go to the store, that is, if you are better at freezer management than me. It also makes us feel prepared for the fall or the winter or whatever ravages of weather might prevent foraging and harvesting fresh food. There is of course a flaw in this logic. Typically any event that would interfere with sourcing food would also mess with the power grid and prevent both the ongoing preservation of frozen food and the ability to cook the rapidly defrosting mystery meat. This is especially true at the cottage where several brushes with freezer meltdown have relegated the cavity above the fridge to mostly storage of ice cubes (ice puddles?) and bread that in a worst case scenario would be ideal for stuffing.

But the freezer, along with the refrigerator, are things that have rescued us from the drudgery of preserving fresh food to tide us over the non-harvest seasons. However, like many of the core household maintenance skills of the past, canning and preserving has recently experienced a resurgence in popularity, probably driven by those same retro-loving hipsters that have rediscovered the sewing machine.

And truth be told, I have also secured a seat on the preserving band wagon. As long as you aren’t trying to deal with bushels of fruits and vegetables, it is a very satisfying thing to create your very own jam and pickles with ingredient lists that don’t require a degree in chemistry to decipher. The problem is the average home jammer will still produce many more jars of stuff than is possible to consume in a year. That’s partly because each jar is a little work of art that is hard to stop admiring. And hard to open because then the pristine jewel-like contents will be sullied by toast crumbs. But even more because who can actually eat all of that jam and trot out all of those pickles? So what we end up doing is giving it all away. You’re welcome.

Apparently the freezer was invented in 1748 by William Cullen and at that time he couldn’t figure out a practical use for it. I think William Cullen was right.

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See you in September

Posted by Marlinee on Sep 14, 2014 in Middle Age

How was your summer? That’s the question this time of year and perhaps the most telling part of the ‘how was your summer’ question is that it is never asked about any other season. I’m just never sure what the right answer is. Is it the same as answering ‘how are you’ where the questioner really doesn’t want an answer other than ‘fine thanks’? Probably. I don’t think they really want the details about my mosquito bite tally, my soggy flower bed, or my neglect of kayaking. And what they really don’t want to know is, regardless of how cold or wet or otherwise suboptimal, I hate, hate, hate the end of summer. One problem is that I am always a year older and unfortunately that issue will remain until I am no longer around to complain about it. The most obvious issue is of course the start of the painful slide towards winter. However, since I don’t otherwise get the chance to answer the question with the degree of detail it deserves, here is really how my summer was.

My summer started with a dead Rhododendron. Okay, technically the deadness of the plant actually preceded June 21 and could probably be traced back to one or more of the arctic vortexes that descended in January and February and March and maybe even April. Anyhow, that meant one of the few redeeming features of my front yard did not make an appearance this year. The black knot on the chokecherry tree is doing just fine though, thanks for asking.

This year I hung Boston ferns on the porch rather than something with flowers. I’d like to say this was in anticipation of the very fern like weather that showed up this summer but I’m not that smart a gardener. No, my fern foray was really because of being out of town for about six weeks in a row, including over the May long weekend, a time period that corresponds to the availability of summer plants. But this actually worked out well in the long run because aside from the fern success, I picked up some sad looking deeply discounted mystery flowers that turned out quite well. And next year I won’t buy anything before the middle of June either.

I can tell that the turkeys had a very good summer. They showed up (or more correctly, showed themselves) the first week in May. There are seven or eight of them and they walk up the path to the cottage with an air of entitlement and seem to enjoy horrifying the cats. I’m not quite sure what they do or where they go for the balance of the summer, but come the beginning of September they show up again, crashing through the bush and cutting a swath from one side of the island to the other. Then they are gone until next year, at least between Thanksgiving and Easter if they know what’s good for them.

Anyhow, the water was quite swimmable until it wasn’t but I swam anyway. The weather was okay except when it wasn’t. The power stayed on except when it didn’t. And the summer wasn’t very summery. But how can it be over already?

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Four in the morning

Posted by Marlinee on Sep 7, 2014 in Houses

There is something about four in the morning for my cat, especially when he is at the cottage. His internal clock says, no matter how comfortable his sleep on my bed and no matter how dark it is outside, it’s time to go out and roust out the creatures of the forest. Earlier in the summer it is in fact almost light at the cat witching hour but not now. I know you might say that I am an idiot not to chuck him out before I go to bed. I tried that the other day, however with the windows open a cat outside sounds very much like a cat inside, and since I had forgotten how smart I had been at bed time, I got up and went down to let him out, only to let him in.

But the good news is that I always know what time it is when Dennis wakes me up. That’s because chances are the power has flicked off for a nanosecond at some point in the night and some number bearing no relation to the actual time is flashing on the clock. This is somewhat understandable if there had been a thunderstorm or wind storm that was violent enough to bring down wires or take out transformers.
However, if that had happened I think it would have woken me up.

One night last weekend when Dennis and I played our little game, the power was alive and well at 4:15am. When I got up once again at a more civilized time to greet a flawless weather day, I didn’t actually know what time it was because the power had gone AWOL. And it continued on its (literal) sabbatical for the balance of the day while repair crews searched for the errant weak link in the grid that had no apparent cause.

This week, when there were ample reasons for outages, it only went off at very brief intervals. Brief enough and random enough intervals to lure me into playing whack-a-mole with the stove, microwave and coffeemaker clocks. Which leads me to one of the great mysteries of the 21st century in terms of technological advancement, or lack thereof: the inability for manufacturers to standardize on things that seem quite simple to the average person. For example, is it really necessary for every digital device to have its own proprietary power supply requiring an equally proprietary charging device? And of course the one that you need is at home when you need it at the office, or in the car when you need it at home or broken. But I digress. Back to the subject of clocks.

In Mr. Maytag’s world you set the time by pressing the ‘Clock’ key (with a picture of a clock on it), selecting morning or afternoon (1 for am, 2 for pm), entering the correct time of day, then pressing ‘Start’. Not all that unreasonable. But when we move to Mr. Hamilton-Beach’s world things start to go a little sideways. He thinks the most logical way to set a clock is pressing the ‘Settings’ button three times to get to the ‘clock’ option, entering the appropriate hour, pressing OK, entering the appropriate number of minutes, pressing OK again, then selecting morning or afternoon (3 for am, 6 for pm), then pressing ‘Start’, at which point the number of minutes is no longer accurate. And at which point I decide to give up on all but the one clock that never stops: Dennis.

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One of these things is not like the other

Posted by Marlinee on Aug 17, 2014 in Middle Age

John Venn of the eponymous diagram turned 180 this month, or at least reached the 180th anniversary of his existence. In case you were wondering, he didn’t call his diagram a ‘Venn diagram’ but Eulerian circles and that’s because he sort of ripped them off from Euler who had his own version of a Venn-like diagram. Fortunately this didn’t cause too much outrage at the time because the diagrams kind of languished in obscurity until the early 1960s, when we were inflicted with the new math. I did not know this at the time, but there was a very logical reason for injecting more logic into math education. According to the internet, the reason behind our childhood trauma was the success of the Russian Sputnik satellite program. In order to counter the threat of the intellectual prowess of Soviet engineers, we all had to pull up our collective mathematics socks. Just one more example of a small group of people ruining things for the rest of us, but I digress.

Here are some other observations about Venn diagrams and the new math.

1. That whole thing about learning the ‘base this’ and ‘base that’ number systems (that is, anything other than 10, the number system we actually use) was all the fault of new math. By using number systems more complex than our own, we were supposed to understand the nature of numbers better. Unfortunately it didn’t contribute at all to our ability to add and subtract.

2. In grade 1 and 2 we had a math aid called rods, which the internet tells me are more correctly called ‘Cuisenaire rods’. This is what happens when a violinist treads into math territory (see above re spoiling things). Anyhow, these rods are a set of 10 coloured sticks of varying lengths that represent all of the numbers between 1 and 10. I guess the zero, widely considered the one of the most important inventions in mathematics, was not considered important. However, although these rods were supposed to “expand children’s latent mathematical abilities in a creative and enjoyable fashion” they fell into disfavour in the 1980s, probably partially due to the propensity for six and seven year old boys to use the ’10′ rod as a weapon.

3. You can download a template for a Venn diagram from a website of educational support materials. I am tempted to say that if you are teaching Venn diagrams and don’t know how to construct one without a template (circle, meet circle) perhaps you should find a different line of work. But I’ll just keep that thought to myself.

4. Despite the downfall of the new math, virtually everyone knows what a Venn diagram is. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that if you draw one to illustrate a point everybody will understand what you are talking about. The bad thing is sharknado.

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57 channels and nothing on

Posted by Marlinee on Aug 10, 2014 in Middle Age

There are lots of ways to get news on the internet. You can go to the newspaper sites, you can go sites for news outlets like the BBC, or you can hang around on aggregator sites like Yahoo. But it all depends on your definition of news. That’s because the internet does not distinguish between news and ‘content’, which pretends to be information but isn’t really.

The invention of the online concept of content has also spawned all kinds of dubious jobs. We have content creators, content curators, content marketers, search engine optimizers, and on and on. These are the source of the ground breaking stories currently masquerading as something interesting or useful including “Boy finds Stanley Cup ring in a river”, “Kourtney Kardashian wears skintight lace jumpsuit” and “Bill Gates vacations on a $330 million yacht.”

But content is not about you. Content is about enticing you to click on a link to spin off an invisible payment transaction with the content creator and one or more advertisers. It doesn’t matter whether or not you actually read the article in question. It doesn’t even matter if the content in question is accurate or even real (that ‘Stanley Cup’ ring? Made of plastic). Or even if it is so self-evident that only someone with very little imagination would read it (what other type of clothing could Kourtney possibly have, and where else should Bill Gates vacation?)

There are many people who have written about the decline of civilization as we know it because the internet has turned our brains to mush and hobbled our critical thinking skills. But according to the internet, Socrates raised a big red flag when writing started to overtake the verbal method of imparting knowledge (and threatened the very existence of the Socratic method of learning) because he thought it would eliminate the need to remember things. This of course did not come to pass within his lifetime or the many lifetimes since 399 B.C. until the invention of the internet as we know it.

But back to the news thing. All of the halfway reputable newspapers (and even the un-reputable ones) have installed some form of mechanism to extract payment for their ‘high value’ content, a euphemism for anything that doesn’t involve any of the Kardashians. This is extremely annoying to people who do want to wade into the internet shark pit to find out what’s going on in the world. But I guess it does prove the adage that you get what you pay for. So I continue to pay for my real newspaper. The one I can sit in my comfortable chair and open up. The one I can still read in any order I like. And the one that never crashes, installs cookies, loses its links, or infects me with viruses. That’s all.

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True Colours

Posted by Marlinee on Aug 3, 2014 in Middle Age

Last night the setting sun was a perfect circle of DayGlo pink that slowly faded to a hue of orange, which if you didn’t know better, you would swear was not a colour found in nature. But are there really colours not found in nature? Surely the internet can illuminate the subject.

Apparently as recently as 2012, the scientific debate continued to rage about the existence of pink. This will no doubt strike fear into the hearts (and outfits) of proto-princesses. But there is some method to this madness. It seems that pink is derived from a melding of red and violet. And why is that such a big deal you might ask? Because, as any student of the rainbow (which is evidently the ultimate colour authority) knows, violet is on the exact opposite end of light spectrum from red. That means there is no possible combination of natural wavelengths that will produce pink. In nature that is. The saving grace is that we can do whatever we want with respect to combining invisible colour swatches, a fact that petunias everywhere are eternally thankful.

Next they’ll be telling us that black doesn’t exist. What’s that? They already did? Now all of science will be in deep trouble with everyone in New York. The story about black, if you believe the colour purists, is that anything in ‘nature’ that appears to be black (even you, Mr. Panther) is really very dark brown. I was horrified to learn that even ‘black’ ink is really a very dark grey. In fact, when printing ‘black’ ink, the pretend black is over-printed on top of some kind of secret concoction of cyan, magenta and yellow to make sure that our eye stays fooled.

Blue food does not occur in nature. There are no leafy blue vegetables. And blueberries are not blue, they are purple. That’s why we don’t have an automatic appetite response to blue and probably also explains my aversion to Smurfs. Also, according to the internet so it must be true, when our earliest ancestors were foraging for food millions of years ago, potential food that was blue, purple or black was considered a warning sign of something poisonous.

Delving further into the literature on the subject, like all scientific inquiry it is important to clarify the definition of the matter at hand. As in, what exactly do we mean by nature? For example, if you include the whole of the universe and can accept the existence of the smallest speck of a colour for the briefest period of time then there may be very few that do not exist. On the other hand, the contrarian view is that nothing in nature has any colour at all. That’s because colour exists only in our eye’s ability to interpret the electromagnetic energy emitted by the molecules in the item in question.

But all of this is making my brain hurt. I think I need a glass of pink lemonade.

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The mosquito coast

Posted by Marlinee on Jul 19, 2014 in Middle Age

The most annoying sound in the world is not a jackhammer crew at 6 am or fingernails on a blackboard or even thousands of vuvuzelas. No, the most annoying sound in the world is the hum of a mosquito somewhere in the vicinity of your head in the dark after you have gone to bed. Actually, let me correct that. The most annoying sound in the world is when the hum of the mosquito stops. That’s because when the hum of the mosquito stops it means the mosquito is doing something other than flying. It’s possible it could be resting on a wall but only the most optimistic of optimists would put much money on that.

Since I am sustaining countless generations of mosquito dynasties, I thought I should learn a bit more about the recipients of my philanthropy.

• That bump you get after a mosquito bite actually has a name. It is called a wheal. Further research revealed that a wheal is actually any area of the skin that is temporarily raised, reddened and accompanied by itching. So take that mosquitoes. You have no monopoly on raised bumps.

• Mosquitoes are most active at dawn and dusk, preferring to rest and digest their dinner during the day. Of course I didn’t need a scientist to tell me that part, although I beg to differ with this rather narrow notion of mosquito behaviour. Unless my colony has insomnia or are compulsive overeaters, in my experience there is no moratorium on when a mosquito might choose to help itself to blood donation.

• There is no known purpose for mosquitoes, which is another thing I could have told you without the need to consult an authoritative source. Unless maybe their ultimate purpose is to destroy the human race. The deadly diseases exclusively transmitted via mosquitoes include dengue fever, malaria, yellow fever, lymphatic filariasis, west Nile, encephalitis and tularaemia. To be fair, most of these thrive in the Southern hemisphere. That’s why in the Northern climates we are told to suck it up and slather on the calamine because after all, mosquitoes won’t kill you. This of course is not true. I have discovered it is possible to be affected by mosquito-induced anaphylaxis and I am certainly a poster child for mosquito allergen sensitivity. I’m not sure what’s worse: the bruises and welts (sorry, wheals) from the bites or the hives from the mosquito repellent. Maybe I can get a doctor’s note to exempt me from mosquito exposure.

• Mosquitoes have no definitive predators. The proof for this is that nothing manages to put any measurable dent in their population. Sure, dragonflies do their part but I am convinced they spend more time swooping about admiring their iridescent wings than chomping down on mosquitoes. Some also believe that installing purple martin bird houses will create a mosquito cone of silence. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but, less than 1% of a purple martin’s diet consists of mosquitoes.

• There are no mosquitoes in Antarctica, which is likely where you will find me next summer.

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Raising the bar

Posted by Marlinee on Jul 4, 2014 in Middle Age

Last week many news outlets carried a story about the 40th anniversary of the creation of the bar code. I found this puzzling because I recalled that a couple of years ago there was a story about the 60th anniversary of the bar code. And unless the bar code had defied the laws of aging, something was out of whack. So I embarked on an investigation.

Exhibit 1: “Forty years ago today, the Universal Product Code (UPC) was first put to use in a U.S. grocery store.” (CBC News, June 25, 2014)

Exhibit 2: “Sunday, 7 October is the 60th anniversary of the barcode patent, filed in the US in 1952. However the distinctive black-and-white stripes did not make their first appearance in an American shop until 1974 – because the laser technology used to read them did not exist.” (BBC News, October 6, 2012)

To save you some time doing your own analysis, here are the key takeaways from my analysis of these news reports and other research related to the bar code.

1. The UPC is a bar code but not all bar codes are UPCs, which makes the UPC a subset of the bar code universe. This begs the question of whether a subset of a thing can have a different anniversary than the thing itself. I am leaning towards not, otherwise Google would have a terrible time keeping up with doodles for things like the anniversary of rocky road ice cream (provenance unknown, but apparently National Rocky Road day is officially celebrated on June 2 in the U.S. You’re welcome.)

2. A barcode and a bar code are the same thing. A Uniform Product Code is the same as a Universal Product Code. I don’t know about you, but what this tells me is the barcode (bar code) and UPC are decidedly not uniform or universal or even consistent.

3. In this case the egg did come before the chicken. I know that inventors are a breed unto themselves, but in which universe does it make sense to invent something that can’t actually be used until some unspecified point in the future when another (as yet un-invented) device becomes available? Oh right, in the UPC universe I guess.

4. I don’t know why I was surprised, but there is an entire genre of bar code tattoos. The less said about that the better.

5. The world’s smallest bar code was created to attach to bees in order to track their activity. According to the inventor, “The bar codes were created using our photocomposition process that prints individual lines as small as 1/1000 of an inch wide. To apply the labels, each bee was put to sleep for two seconds with a short burst of carbon dioxide, giving the researchers enough time to quickly glue a tiny label on the bee’s back. A laser scanner mounted over the tunnel-shaped entrance to the hive then recorded their activities.” Not to rain on the parade of someone who managed this feat, but they probably should have noticed that bees actually already have stripes.

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Summer in the city

Posted by Marlinee on Jun 22, 2014 in Travels

There is no better cross section of fashion than public transit. Or let me correct that, public transit in a large metropolitan centre. I have had the good fortune not to take the subway for a while, however recently it was necessary to brave the experience of teaming masses of commuters. But I pride myself in being able to make lemonade in situations of adversity so I turned my journey into an anthropology observation. The objective of this particular observation was to compare and contrast summer fashion while determining the fashion motivation, destination and/or occupation of the subjects.

Subject Number 1: Woman wearing black tights, a black pencil skirt, and a black sweater. Oh, and a black raincoat over top. It was not rainy. First and foremost, this person is clearly in summer denial. She is probably from a country that is much, much, hotter than ours. She likely also lost her luggage on the way here and has no other clothes to wear.

Subject Number 2: Man wearing pastel green pants, a pink seersucker jacket and a white polo shirt. This is someone who has grasped the concept of the season that starts on June 21. Or perhaps someone that has way too firm a grasp on summer. The big puzzle is where this person works. But on second thought maybe he was on his way to a fancy golf course. A golf course so fancy that they store your clubs for you. But anyone that fancy would never be taking the subway. So he must work in a menswear store.

Subject Number 3: A teenage girl wearing short shorts and a facsimile of a sleeveless t-shirt that ended somewhere north of her navel. At first I thought she was going to the beach or the park. But then I realized it was way before noon, which is not a time of day that one is likely to encounter a teen spending leisure time. No, the only possible explanation is she was off to summer school, an institution with which I have considerable familiarity.

Numerous subjects: About half of the subway train was wearing sunglasses. Inside. At 7 am. Perhaps they were afraid that if they took them off for the journey they would accidentally leave them on the seat and forget them. And no one wants to brave the trip to the lost and found where you can locate crutches, tricycles, and baseball caps but never anything that someone else might find remotely useful. But I digress. Maybe they all work the night shift and are on their way home. Except why would you need to wear sunglasses at night unless you are Cory Hart?

Subject Number 4: A woman wearing an impeccably tailored sleeveless dress with matching jacket and platform pumps with about a four inch heel. No, unfortunately this was not me. First of all she was much younger than me and also I would never wear heels on the subway. The fact that she had inappropriate transit footwear indicates that she has a job somewhere in the fashion industry as an assistant to someone like Miranda Priestly, where it is career suicide to be spotted less than fully accessorized. Oh, and she was also wearing sunglasses.

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