2019/11/01

Private lives

In the late 1980s and early 90s, the main business of the company I worked for was providing searchable online periodical content, often with article text, first through CompuServe and later through public and academic libraries. In those days we "rolled our own." We started with some fairly basic software that we then changed and revised and upgraded over the years.

For several years, we logged only error messages, both fatal exceptions and non-fatal errors, such as search failures. We could tell when people found no matches for their search, but we didn't know what the failing search expression contained.

We did not go lightly into logging search expressions. By now many are too young to remember how high the expectation of privacy used to be, especially in the United States. In the early days of online activity, it was assumed that people were entitled to the same privacy as they would have had while doing research at a library or talking with someone on the telephone. And privacy meant privacy, not a pledge to take your information but keep it safe and confidential.

We really didn't want to know what people were searching for. It might be all kinds of embarrassing stuff. We thought of what we would be doing as snooping. But we realized that not saving search expressions was hampering efforts to improve our search server. If we knew why searches failed, we should be able to help customers be more successful, and we would know more about what people expected from our products.

You might find this quaint, but we were nervous about snooping. We didn't want customers to know we could see what they searched for.  We told ourselves we would use "snoopage" only for goodness and niceness, meaning to help diagnose a problem or failure.

I don't remember when this kind of detailed information capture became normal. I think it might have been another decade, or nearly so. I know that long before I retired, the logging of detailed search information had become routine, and it was used for metrics, analysis, marketing, and more.

Shortly before I left, the company was at the point of dealing with European Union privacy regulations. I'm not sure if those are closing the barn door after the horse has already gone. Maybe they're more like not letting the horse run quite as wild and crapping all over the place.

One reason the company was not drawn to mine user data was that the services cost money, then and now. We figured that entitled users to some level of privacy.

Most of the services we use now are "free." Free meaning that we don't pay a fee beyond our internet connection charge. The services are anything but free, however, when you look at what we've given in exchange—something that only a half century ago people would have preserved at all cost.

2019/10/21

Random stuff about France

As I wrote in my last post, Sweetie and I recently spent a week and a half in France: eight days in Paris, with a day trip to Rouen and a much-of-day trip to Versailles, a weekend in La Rochelle, and then one night in a rather nice airport hotel. Not gonna travelogue here, just make a few observations.

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen
by Edgar Degas
We toured the Louvre, went to Versailles, and took a selfie at the Eiffel Tower, but these are the three Paris sites that turned out to be most interesting for me: the Musée d'Orsay, Père Lachaise Cemetery, and Mundolingua.
  • At the d'Orsay, I learned how much I love the work of Claude Monet and many other Impressionist painters. As always, seeing famous works such as Monet's haystacks or Degas' young ballerina in person has much more impact than all those years of looking at photos.
  • Père Lachaise was great not only for Jim Morrison's tomb, obligatory for old rockers like us, but those of so many others, such as Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, and Collette. There are heart-piercing memorials to victims of the Holocaust and other mass murders. And the grounds are beautiful.
  • Sweetie found Mundolingua, a small museum tucked into a very old building near Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It's an interactive museum of language, and if you're a language nerd, it's astounding. We had only about an hour and a half to spend there, and we could easily have spent twice as long.
Saint-Sulpice
We visited some of my ancestral churches in Paris, Rouen, and La Rochelle, churches where people from whom I am descended were baptized situated in neighbourhoods where they grew up. Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Saint-Sulpice, Notre-Dame-de-Rouen, and Saint-Saveur in La Rochelle. I'm a faithless ex-Catholic who still loves old churches, and these had particularly good vibes in them.

L'Église-de-la-Madeleine was only a few blocks from where we stayed in Paris. It's all Roman columns on the front, but inside it's a church. We went there for a free performance of Mozart's requiem that was wonderful.

Walks of Italy says that Paris restaurants open at 8 pm. Maybe some do, but mostly we saw 7 o'clock (one place opened at 7:30).

Coronation of Napoleon
Finding a restaurant for dinner on a Sunday, however, can be a challenge. You might find yourself eating pizza (at least it was good). A lot of things are closed or run differently on Sundays.

If you're not in a hurry, some buses get you where you're going in a more pleasant way than the Métro. It's nice to be on the surface when you don't know the city. The Métro is very good and useful, but it's like New York—not many elevators, some escalators, a lot of stairs, and sometimes very long passageways to connect lines.

Security is a visible reality in Paris and at all train stations. First it was because of a planned gilets jaunes march. Then there was the state funeral for Jacques Chirac. We got used to police cordoning off our corner of the neighbourhood, I think because of the nearby British Consulate General, and having to tell them that indeed we were staying there and not meeting anyone.

Grand Horloge, Rouen
Trains rule. We took a commuter train to Versailles and back. We took a regional train to Rouen. We went to La Rochelle and back on high-speed rail.

If you find yourself in Rouen on a Tuesday when most of the museums are closed, go to the Musée départemental des antiquités. The museum has a fabulous collection of artifacts mostly from the area of France, from pre-Roman on, and there's no fee.

I put La Rochelle in the trip because it was a major departure point for people who went to Nouvelle-France, including a lot of my ancestors, and I thought a small seaside city would be a nice change from Paris. As it turned out, we were completely charmed by the old port and the many walking streets, and the aquarium is first-rate. La Rochelle tugs at us a bit.

Old Port, La Rochelle
Charles De Gaulle Airport is one of the worst, but having learned a few things, getting there was much smoother than getting to Paris from there. There are three train stations at CDG connected by a shuttle, and trains from each station go to different Paris stations. If we had sussed out the shuttle and train systems (a lot to ask from jet-lagged tourists), we could have taken a train from a station that would have gone to a station closer to our abode. On the way back, it didn't cost much to take a bus from Gare de Lyon to the airport.

European washer-dryers are not much fun for North Americans. I still don't know how to make the thing not wash or rinse but only dry.

If you have a lot of time to kill at Pierre Trudeau Airport in Montreal and you eat meat, go to the Pork and Pickle. Not just a cute name but good food.

2019/10/17

Land and belonging

Plaque in Saint-Saveur, La Rochelle
I was born on the land of the Pennacook, the Abenaki, and the nations of the Wabanaki Confederacy. I grew up on the land of the Pennacook and Wabanaki, and came of age on Mohican land. I went to university and lived for many years following on the land of the Massa-adchu-es-et.

In pursuit of opportunity, I moved to land used by several nations, including Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish, Sto:lo, Stz'uminus, Musqueam, Katzie, Kwantlen, Kwikwetlem, Tsawwassen, and Qayqayt. It's a beautiful land on the west coast of Turtle Island, hemmed in between mountains and sea. But like so much of Turtle Island, the land was never ceded. In popular parlance, it's stolen land.

The title my spouse and I hold on our land was granted by the provincial authority, the descendant of the colonial state imposed upon the land and its inhabitants. The original title holder either claimed the land or purchased it, but not from any of the First Nations whose land it was. They never granted title to anyone, and they never received recompense.

I was born on Turtle Island. My ancestors for the previous 300 years had been born on Turtle Island. But before that, most of them had come from Europe. Only one ninth-great-grandmother*, with others possible but undetermined, belonged to the land already. I am mainly the descendant of people who came and stayed and imposed their colony and state upon the land.

Do I belong on this land? Do I belong on any of the land on this continent? Do 10 generations of ancestors born here make me belong to the land?

When someone asks Lee Maracle if Indigenous people want settlers to go back home, she answers with a wry "Maybe." I can't disagree with any native person who says we should leave. We perpetrated some terrible atrocities and in general did a shitty job of being colonizers. There might be nothing we can do now to make things better. So maybe there is nothing I can do to belong to this continent.

It's not that it was wrong to sail to Turtle Island or even to settle here. But it was wrong to push the Indigenous people out. It was wrong to try to convert and assimilate Indigenous people. It was wrong to kidnap them and bring them to Europe, or make them servants or slaves. It was wrong to think of them as less and to treat them as less. An early melding of cultures did not continue as settlers mostly retained their own ways.

If an edifice was constructed by enslaved people or if people were executed so their blood could be part of the foundation, can the edifice ever be simply magnificent and beautiful and glorious? Or is it forever tainted by its origins? Is there a road forward on Turtle Island? Or is the damage too deep and too messy?

Saint-Sulpice, Paris
If I don't belong on this land, where do I belong? France hasn't been "home" since the time of the Bourbon monarchy. And yet our recent visit to Paris, Rouen, and La Rochelle, left me with strong feelings that won't let go.

It wasn't that I found the culture familiar. There is no magical connection between me and the descendants of people who said goodbye to those who went across the ocean more than 300 years ago. But I found France comfortable. It fit me, somehow. Not all the time, of course, but more often than I had imagined it would. I was walking where my ancestors walked.

I might well belong on that land. Some kind of human beings were in the area of France all the way back to the original migration into Europe by both Homo neanderthalis and H. sapiens. The Romans found Celtic Gauls, related to much of the population of Europe. Frankish and other invaders did not cause the Celtic culture to vanish, but it lies somewhere between the margins and assimilation. For the most part, the French people have been the French people for a long time.

I might live out my remaining days on the shore of the Salish Sea. I might never do more than visit my ancient homeland. But I take some comfort in knowing that I might belong somewhere, even if it's not here.

[Information on whose land I lived and live on came from Native Land, an excellent interactive map project.]

* I originally wrote "eighth." "Ninth" is correct.

2019/09/10

Right neighbourly

What I did on my summer vacation: I sat on the front porch.

Our house came with a front porch, but we didn't use it much, especially after the glider broke. We had the back deck added in an early reno that included the removal of a derelict detached garage and the addition of an attached carport with a deck over top, or a deck with a carport underneath, depending on how you look at it. The lot slopes away, so in the previous configuration, there were stairs from the kitchen to the yard, and the car was parked down a short, open walkway. After the reno, we could walk out to the deck from the main floor and walk out to our car from the basement.

The deck gets a lot of sun with some tree-induced breaks. It has a two-person hammock, a table and chairs with umbrella, a blueberry bush, and a succulent. It's close to the kitchen. Yellow-jackets-willing, we can have meals out there in warm weather. We used to have a gas grill, and we've hosted lots of company back there. I've also had many a nice snooze in the hammock.

This summer, and probably in recent years, we haven't used the deck as much. In the afternoon on a warm, sunny day (not so much this summer but the last few), it can get too hot out there for a few hours. We've had some meals on the deck this summer, but we haven't been hosting much, and the yellow-jacket problem is real (although the trap seems to work).

I like that the deck is higher than its surroundings, but it's also above most of the garden. The deck of my dreams (which exists) is surrounded by forest, but we don't live in a forest. The deck is also noisier than the garden below because its elevation gives it more exposure to the nearby arterial street.

This summer, a bit late, I got inspired by some friends who live across town. They were making good use of their front porch which, like ours, is fairly close to the street, in that old-fashioned, neighbourly, non-suburban way.

There was nothing to sit on, only a small round table. I moved a folding chair out to the front porch and set it by the table. Before long, I finished an Adirondack chair from a kit that my sweetie had mostly assembled many years ago. I set it next to the table. And I built and deployed the second Adirondack chair.

The porch faces northwest, with a huge boulevard tree that keeps it shady even from afternoon sun. There are often birds in the nearby trees and shrubs. Sweetie has a lovely hanging basket on one side. I like sitting in one of the Adirondack chairs and reading, maybe with a beverage on the table nearby. It's easy to relax out there.

From the back deck, you can see people go by in the side lane at the end of the driveway below. From the front porch, you can see people only a few metres away and almost at the same level. Neighbours walking their dogs. People with kids going to the nearby swimming pool. It's a nice street to walk on, and it's good to see and say hi to and occasionally chat with people who walk by. So far I haven't had anyone want to spend time in the other Adirondack chair—not even Sweetie!—but it's good to have an inviting chair just in case.

The weather is turning cooler, but I'll probably wrap up in a hoodie and keep front porch season going a while longer.

2019/06/05

R&R

It's been just over three months since I retired. In that time, I have not been idle.

I released a remixed and remastered version of some of the best music I was part of. Mostly Still Underfoot by the Underachievers, originally released in 1986, is out on download and streaming services all over the interwebs.

I reached the end of my Big Book of Ancestors, a mostly internal document. It's not complete, but I now know the birth locations of all my ancestors whose birth location is known. Sweetie and I will have this reference for when we visit France in the fall.

New West Pride is ramping up to get ready for the August 17 street festival. I am board secretary and responsible for a few other things. It's my main stress right now, but it's not terrible.

Not like my job was.

I'm not exaggerating much when I say that my last two years of employment almost killed me. They certainly had a pronounced negative impact on my health. I was almost always sleep-deprived. I had a lot of gut pain and issues with digestion and absorption. I had myofascial issues that caused a lot of pain. There were days when I would hit the wall and have to book off for an afternoon, and times I was hit with pretty much all the symptoms associated with fibromyalgia.

As I've said before, it's not that the job was bad. It was a very good job, one I was fortunate to have. But it was the wrong job for me, and I had reached the limit of my ability to adapt myself to its needs.

I was burned out! I kind of knew it at the time but I didn't want to admit it. And I needed to put in the time so that Sweetie and I could have some kind of retirement savings. I knew I was hurting myself, but I did what my folks would have done and toughed it out. Now I have to deal with post-burnout.

My health improved very shortly after I retired. The gut issues went away almost entirely. But muscle and connective tissue problems remain, as do a few other minor things. I feel like I aged more than two years during the last two years.

So for a while, I'm going to push away feelings that I'm not doing enough. I need some time. Usually, at least if I manage things well, I no longer have to hurry. I have been in hurry mode for most of my life, and it's exhausting. Time to move at a more human pace.

I don't plan to coast from now until I hit my expiration date. I have ongoing responsibilities. I have a house to keep (that I need to do better at) and a garden to encourage. I have more musical things to do. If I can get into the proper mode, I can block out writing time.

I didn't think I'd need that much "vacation" after I stopped working. I thought I'd be rarin' to go. But I damaged myself more than I had thought I would. So enough toughness for now, and into recovery, for however long it takes.

2019/05/27

Gametes

Human beings sex each other. Our brains do it automatically, as do the brains of all animals that reproduce sexually. If potential motile gamete** producers (MGPs, a.k.a. males) and potential non-motile gamete producers (NGPs, a.k.a. females) don't identify each other, a species will not continue.

This is why the "It's Pat!" sketches that Julia Sweeney* did on Saturday Night Live were funny, at least at the time. It wasn't so much Pat's gender ambiguity that was funny (going for cheap laughs sucks). It was the lengths to which the others would go to try to ascertain whether Pat was an NGP or an MGP. Their brains would explode from not being able to tell, and viewers would laugh at their frustration and love it when every attempt would fail.

English and many other languages reflect this sexual binary and the innate desire to know who is which. The word "gender," whatever else it means, still has a grammatical sense. Most personal pronouns, for which the antecedent is a named person, have no gender. But third-person singular personal pronouns do. English and most other languages force you to declare your knowledge or assumption as to whether the person referred to is a MGP or a NGP.

There are other languages, however, that use gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronouns. Swedish has joined them. English should too. Why do we need to identify the sex of the antecedent? We don't do it for plurals. We should not have to say "the previously mentioned female person" or "the previously mentioned male person." We should be able to say "the previously mentioned person."

I understand that gendered third-person singular personal pronouns are ingrained in English, and I don't expect people's brains to stop trying to sex each other. But I would like not to have that embedded in our everyday speech.

I realize as well that people use the term "gender" in ways other than the grammatical sense, and they consider pronouns to be a reflection of gender. Some want third-person personal pronouns to be something they choose for themselves and for others to use to refer to them so they will not be misgendered.

If gender is important to a person, then it is. If someone says "these are my pronouns," I always do my best to comply. But I would so much rather use a personal pronoun that doesn't go into intimate details. I would like to be able to refer to a person as a person the way I can refer to people as people.

Ey, em, eir, eirs, and eirself have advantages. They match the form of the corresponding third-person plural personal pronouns and thus are easy to remember. They do not evoke either of the existing gendered third-person personal pronouns. They are unambiguously singular. And they don't say anything about the antecedent's sex or gender. Tell me why that isn't better.

*I had written Mary Gross. Thanks to the reader who corrected me.
**My sweetie, who is smarter than I am and more sciency (she has actual degrees), pointed out that every time I used the word "zygote," it should have been "gamete." What a maroon! I even had to change the title.

2019/05/20

Lessons



It wasn't long after Underfoot came out that I knew I should have done a better job producing. The record wasn't bad. It was just timid and safe. It didn't pop. And it didn't grab very many people.

I knew we weren't the best musicians around. We played as well as we could in the studio. I had thought part of the reason the record wasn't great was that we hadn't played well enough. That was wrong. Both playing and singing were way stronger than I had thought. Given a better mix, that became delightfully obvious to me. I heard how the drums and bass locked, and how the guitars worked in support. Mostly I heard some great vocal performances, especially by Cilla. I love the range of expression in her singing.

I really had no idea a remix could make this much difference. And this is with the engineer and me being mindful of not fixing too much. You can hear the misses because we left them there. This is the real thing, all recorded back in 1985. But you can also hear how little would "need" fixing even if we were going for perfect the way many do now. Tempos slide a bit. We did not play with a click track. I don't think we could have at that speed, and I don't think we would have wanted to. But for the most part the rhythm is solid. You can dance to it.

Only one "wish I had caught that" so far. I'm sorry the cowbell isn't a bit higher in the break in "Short Wave." It's the Morse code sound, and that's the one place where it should come up. I imagine I will hear more regrets, but I not going to sweat any of it.

Mostly Still Underfoot is only eight songs, a small slice of a particular Underachievers period. The band recorded one other time at Euphoria (the first "Friend o' Mine" and a cover of "Boys") and several times at an eight-track studio called Radiobeat (the earliest tracks were with a different drummer). I would love to put together a Radiobeat Sessions collection with "I'll Be There for You," "Wasted Youth," early tape-only songs like "Get Out," and maybe even "Crosswalk," never released in any form. I might also put some more marginally recorded stuff on SoundCloud.

On Bandcamp, the album has some pretty standard pricing. I did that because music and art are worth something, and none of it happens for free. But I don't want friends or even acquaintances to pay unless they want to. If you know me, hit me up. I have more download codes than I will ever use—unless the record explodes. Think that's likely?