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.



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.



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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Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you

Posted by Marlinee on Jun 15, 2014 in Travels

I am going to go back to school to become a weather person. Could there possibly be a more cushy job? You can be completely wrong most of the time and never lose your job. You can even make do with one all purpose prediction every day: mix of sun and cloud, chance of showers. If it turns out to be sunny, you are a hero.

Even the robot weather predictors can’t get it right. I have one that shows a smiling man that adds and sheds layers of clothing based on the outside temperature, although he seems to be from California because he thinks that 19 degrees Celsius requires a jacket and scarf. He also carries an umbrella when he thinks it’s going to rain. This is usually when there is not a cloud in the sky, but to give him the benefit of the doubt, he’s stuck inside and can’t see out the window from his perch on the kitchen counter. Come to think of it though, he is a perfect example of a successful implementation of artificial intelligence because he behaves exactly like a real weather man. He’s always wrong.

I think the reason we cut weather people so much slack is because we are fascinated with weather. We certainly talk about it enough. We talk about what the weather is doing, what it might be doing, what it should be doing at this time of day or time of year, and what we wish it was doing. There would be awkward silence at the beginning of conference calls if we had no weather to talk about. No one would care about climate change if it didn’t involve weather and weather is even powerful enough to be the proof point on both sides of the climate change belief system. Deniers will point to the arctic vortex that terrorized us this winter, while believers will cite heat waves in Australia.

The problem is there will always be ample evidence of anything anybody wants to believe about the weather. This is probably because weather is a zero sum game. If it’s rainy somewhere it’s got to be sunny somewhere else. When it’s cold in one half of the earth it’s warm in the other. I think I’m already getting the hang of this weather person thing without having to take a single course.

Weather people also have a strange affinity for airports. As George Carlin used to say, why bother always telling us what the temperature is at the airport when no one lives there. Although on second thought, some of us feel as if we do live at the airport although that rarely results in experiencing what’s going on outside.

As the saying goes, everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it. As a weather person I think I could truly make a difference. You want a sunny day for your golf tournament? I’d be happy to oblige with an appropriate prediction. You want lots of snow for your ski trip? I’ll make sure to put snow in the forecast. And in a bid to become the most accurate weather person in the world, I am willing to go way out on a limb and tell you that without a doubt, there will be weather tomorrow. You’re welcome.



My address to the graduating class of 2014

Posted by Marlinee on Jun 1, 2014 in Work

The main point of finally finishing school is to enter the workforce, but of course deciding what to do, unless you have taken a course of study that ends in a ready-made profession, is not that easy. Even those of you who did graduate as a proto-engineer, nurse, teacher etc. may have already figured out you would rather do something else if you only knew what it was.

There has recently been a backlash against the ‘do what you love’ mantra espoused by everyone from Steve Jobs on down. And I think this is well warranted. Finding work is more often like an arranged marriage than love at first sight: if you match up some essential skills and aptitudes with the requirements of a job in a particular industry or function eventually your level of confidence and comfort in a position will rise to the point where you feel competent, valued and challenged.

Another aspect of a happy work life is the right corporate culture. In fact, one of the most important questions to ask in an interview is about the corporate culture and the key things the company thinks defines their culture. Then put your propaganda detector on high alert. Another good question is ‘what do you do for fun?’ One company I interviewed with said the most fun thing they did was have birthday cakes. Now if you think that’s the pinnacle of levity I’d be happy to pass along their name, but my interpretation of that answer was that the notion that work and fun could have some sort of intersection was not part of their corporate lexicon.

Something else to watch out for in the quest for minimal drudgery is companies that tout they look out for their employees’ ‘work life balance’. These are the ones that have kitchens stocked with microwavable food and cappuccino machines, and access to a concierge service to pick up and drop off your dry cleaning or schedule your dentist appointment. Note that all of these ‘perks’ centre around doing anything in their power to not have you leave your desk.

In the end though, we can’t all sit in a corner office and invent new handheld devices. Someone has to take out the garbage, make the sandwiches, look after other people’s children and stock the shelves. And anyone can do any of these things with a smile on their face if they like working with their colleagues. I have had terrible jobs that were bearable because we were all united in hatred of our boss. I have had wonderful jobs that were that much more fabulous because of the people I worked with.

You may think the people you met at school will be your friends for life. Some of them will, but on balance you will all go your separate ways. Your true source of lifelong friendship will be the people you sit side-by-side with as you dig into your working life. And what’s not to love about that.

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Don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player

Posted by Marlinee on May 25, 2014 in Middle Age

If Craigslist is a valid statistical sample, it seems you can’t even give away pianos these days. Almost every week a few of them show up in the ‘free’ section. And show up again and again until presumably the owners give up and cart them to the curb. Of course there is always a catch with ‘free’ things. In the case of pianos, the lack of perfection usually involves missing keys, dubious tuning, and most of all, the fact that you will need to pay someone to move it.

But the larger issue is that pianos have apparently fallen out of favour. Clearly we have many more options for amusement than they did when a piano was the entertainment hub of the house, but I can’t help but think that the demise of the piano is yet another bellwether of the decline and fall of civilized culture as we know it. Here are some reasons why pianos deserve more respect.

• Pianos are perhaps the only practical demonstration of the use of physics. I personally have not had many occasions to trot out my vast physics knowledge gained in Grade 10, but some Italian guy called Bartolomeo Christofori figured out how to do something useful with it. Apparently there is a fundamental mechanical problem of piano design because the hammer that gets activated when you hit a key has to strike the string, but not remain in contact with it because this would interfere with the resonance of the sound. The hammer must also return to its rest position without bouncing violently. Mr. Christofori bent physics to his will to give us a piano that works. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that if we give up on pianos we are also giving up on the usefulness of physics.

• Back in the day before the turntable, it fell to the lady of the house to spin the tunes via the piano keyboard to give everyone something to do after dinner. This required lots of skill beyond knowing how to play, including a good memory, the knack of choosing an appropriate repertoire for an audience and the ability to sit on a piano seat for extended periods of time. After dinner (or in many cases, during dinner) entertainment now consists of earphones and laptops or tablets, as everyone consumes his or her preferred visual and audio distraction from the real world. I defy anyone who thinks this is an improvement.

• Many of us took piano lessons as a child for at least three or four months or however long it took for our parents to succumb to the torture of getting us to practice and listening to the endless repetition of scales and beginner piano pieces that bare little resemblance to anything anyone might want to listen to over and over. Piano lessons were also part of the larger realm of music education. These days it isn’t at all necessary to learn anything about music to create it because all you need to do is locate snippets on the internet and combine them together. But I’m not quarreling with the advances the worldwide web has brought. My real beef is that if piano lessons go the way of the dodo they are yet one more thing we needed to endure that new generations do not.



Brush up your Shakespeare

Posted by Marlinee on Apr 27, 2014 in Middle Age

Apparently Shakespeare turned 450 this week. This event went unheralded by Google (which thought Earth day was a more worthy doodle of the day), so there is of course some doubt as to whether this anniversary actually took place. Much like there is still some doubt that Shakespeare actually wrote everything that bears his name. But let’s put aside these petty controversies.

Shakespeare is one of those cultural touch points that is part of virtually everyone’s (at least in the English speaking world) experience. Or in fact, everyone’s shared trauma, because no man in the history of the world has inspired such universal loathing. The only people who got out alive in my high school were in the ‘non-academic’ stream and got to watch West Side Story instead of reading Henry IV Part 2.

I have many bones to pick with Shakespeare. Here are some of them.

The soliloquies. A soliloquy is defined as “an utterance by a person who is talking to himself or is otherwise disregardful of any hearers present”. And here lies the essence of my problem: generally, the only person interested in what someone who is talking to himself is himself. Also, for some reason, teachers of Shakespeare think that memorizing a soliloquy or two is essential to the process of understanding the play in question. I’d be happy to recite the first soliloquy by Prince Hal in Henry IV that I was forced to learn about 40 years ago. That’s because it is still taking up some of my brain cells, regardless of whether I could probably use them for something else, like remembering where I left my glasses.

The quotes.There are 2,810 Shakespeare quotes that have been catalogued. You probably know the top of the hit parade, like “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them” and “All that glistens is not gold.” And I have no quarrel with these. What bugs me about Shakespeare quotes are the misquotes that have taken on a life of their own. For example, the witches did not say “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” but “double, double toil and trouble”. This was supposedly Walt Disney’s fault, who thought he could re-write Shakespeare. Oh wait, I guess he did, rather successfully as I would bet a random poll of people on the street would quote Walt’s version rather than Will’s.

The words. We all know they talked a different breed of English back in the Shakespearian day. Some words have completely disappeared, while others mean something completely different. “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” actually means ‘why are you’ not ‘where are you’ (see also, misquoting). But that’s not the worst part. For some reason people feel it is necessary to use what they think passes as a Shakespearian accent when appropriating his words. As well, Shakespeare felt the need to just make words up. About 2,200 of them at last count. Mr. Shakespeare, you are a cold-blooded arch-villain who has disheartened many a student’s eyeball. Good thing you are already dead or we’d have to assassinate you.

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Here comes the sun

Posted by Marlinee on Mar 23, 2014 in Middle Age

Spring is the time for cleaning. Or at least, the time when your windows shame you into cleaning. Or if you have no shame, the time when you avoid looking out the windows in the middle of the day if the sun is shining. But for me it’s less about the clean part and more about the spring de-cluttering exercise. This is a result of spending too much time indoors and the resulting excessive familiarity with the things inhabiting the house that breeds contempt. For example, the hanging pot rack seemed like a good idea at the time. All of those pots and pans right at the ready! All of those pots and pans that are less than shiny. All of those pots and pans, period. Who really needs five frying pans?

Even though I am pretty good at editing my collection of stuff, there are some things that are impossible to get rid of. Some of this has to do with nature of the objects themselves, especially if they are objects of nature. For example, take my collection of rocks. They aren’t boring old pebbles. They are crystals and geodes and granite with flecks of fool’s gold and pink beach rocks. They are also completely useless.

The same goes for the collection of shells. Conch and clam and spiny things and Neptune things and sand dollars that are a few pennies short of perfect. One artful glass jar full of shells is a lovely feng shui addition to any room. Ten jars full is a dubious decorating decision.

Then what about those University text books? I think the problem is the amount of money I paid for them and also the fact that philosophy really doesn’t change, especially the thoughts of the ancient philosophers and even the 20th century ones that happen to be dead. Of course I have no desire to read them again (and in fact I had about the same amount of desire to read them in the first place). But they still sit in a box in the basement because how can you possibly throw out wisdom?

My copy of Bleak House also still prevails. I just cannot get rid of something that consumed countless hours of my life I will never get back, as if somehow by keeping it as an (unread) hostage I’m returning the favour. It’s also a talisman that reminds me not to finish any book I don’t completely want to read.

But spring is also a time of optimism and renewal, which gives me the strength to move forward. Those extra frying pans – couldn’t they be ironic birdbaths if mounted on the top of a tree stump at the cottage? And how better to throw out rocks than to artfully incorporate them into the edge of the garden. And while I’m at it, those shells would have an ironic and artful existence as random follys in the midst of the forest. A few problems solved. Now if only I could figure out how to throw out a garbage can.



Private eyes are watching you

Posted by Marlinee on Mar 16, 2014 in Travels, Work

I now have my fingerprints on file. This might be a good thing in case something bad happens to me (and a note to all: if the basement floor looks recently enrobed in concrete, please ask some questions). On the other hand I now have my fingerprints on file, which places certain constraints on future activity if I don’t want to end up on the cover of the National Enquirer.

This is because I am now an officially trusted traveller. I don’t know why they didn’t trust me before because I am certainly very trust worthy. To become a trusted traveller you need to supply approximately the same amount of information to the government as you need to fork over to the Kremlin to get a Russian visa. I am not quite sure why Russia makes it so hard to get into the country, since last I heard people would rather make the migration the other way over the ocean. Just in case you ever need to go there, to get a Russian visa you need to fill out the (paper only) form. Make sure you have your job and travel history for the past 10 years handy and if you have ever served in the military, good luck with that. Then take your form in person to the Consulate office with your money order (no electronic payments going on here) and wait in line, which would be your first introduction to Russian culture. Oh and I forgot to add, you will need an invitation letter explaining why on earth you would want to visit.

Once the Russian officials have checked your credentials, you will need to surrender your passport for about 6 weeks to process the visa, probably manufactured by members of Pussy Riot in a Siberian jail. This is a little disconcerting to say the least, especially when you are not sure if you will need it in the interim and how exactly would I explain to U.S. border control that I do have a passport but currently it’s in Russia?

But I digress. I am now the proud owner of a Nexus pass that (theoretically) allows me to breeze through North American security and border control. In practice this only works some of the time. That is, it only works at airports in very major cities. You can breeze through Toronto security and not have to take off your shoes or even talk to a U.S. official when you are on your stateside journey.

Things went a little south on the way back north. Boston, for example, does not believe in Nexus no matter how hard I tried to convince them I did not really have to take off my boots because I was proven to not be a shoe bomber . Unfortunately my own border also let me down. Of the four machines that welcome the iris of my eye back on sovereign land, only two were functional. Scratch that. The two functional ones kept going out of business once they had decided I matched my eye credentials. I tried not to take it personally, but I am now gaining a new respect for Russian efficiency.

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