Thursday, October 29, 2009

Blue Line Taxi #522 is a menace to society

This afternoon, while walking to lunch, I made the decision to jay-walk across Cooper at Elgin (as I frequently do while walking). There was only one car coming, and it was far enough away that I'd be out of the intersection by the time the car approached.

Turns out, the car, which was Blue Line Taxi #522, sped up. As he went to turn left through the intersection, I felt his tire rub against the heel of my shoe.

"Motherfucker!" I exclaimed.

Two women who had just crossed Elgin (with the light) turned and looked at me, I guess to see if I was referring to one of them.

"That taxi just hit my foot!" I clarified.

The ladies remarked that they were just talking to each other about how fast that taxi took the turn.

I'd report the driver, but I've had bad luck. Last time I reported a driver glancing me (at the time, I was on my bike), the only witness I had (an OC Transpo driver) didn't see the car contact me because he was on the other side of the car. Similarly, these two women didn't see the taxi glance my foot. I could have gotten their information as witnesses to the speed at which the taxi was going, but pedestrians can't judge the exact speed at which a motorist goes--he might have technically been going the limit, but it looked faster because nobody in their right mind goes 50 km/h on Elgin, especially around a corner.

Also, the previous time, while my brake lever made some marks on the driver's rear passenger door (I saw them in great detail because the incident happened in slow-motion for me), the police claimed there were no scratches on the door, and therefore no corroboratory evidence. In today's case, I just felt his tire rub the back of my shoe, but that made no mark on the tire or the shoe.

So there's no point in bothering to report this asshole to the police. The most it would result in is a jaywalking ticket for me. So instead I'm calling him out.


There are some who think that I deserve what I got (or could have gotten) because I was jaywalking. The City of Ottawa, for one, who had a Walk like your life depends on it campaign earlier this year.

The campaign's reasoning goes--applied to this situation--even though the taxi driver could have not accelerated in a high pedestrian traffic zone, and even though the driver could have not passed me so closely to endanger my life, the whole situation is really my fault. Even though a taxi driver is a professional driver who should be held to the highest standards


Pedestrians and cyclists probably account for a high proportion of taxi passengers. So why are they so antagonistic?

Two years ago yesterday there was a consultation on the City of Ottawa's Transportation Master Plan. Someone I know attended the focus group where Hanif Patni, president of Coventry Connections (Blue Line Taxi) claimed that the City shouldn't spend any money on cycling because cyclists only account for 1% of the population traffic (which is an inaccurate figure, especially if you look beyond the city-wide level to ward and neighbourhood cycling levels).

From the day I heard about that, I've used other taxi companies when I've needed a taxi.

After today's incident, I think I'll keep a running tally of specific taxi drivers (by car number) who do dangerous and reckless actions (as well as the good ones). Feel free to contribute your own in the comments. It would be neat to eventually make such a list into some sort of mobile phone app, so that when you want to take a taxi, you can see if they've endangered your friends and neighbours.

- RG>

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Holy fuck! Google Wave!

Back a few years ago, Google introduced a paradigm shift to e-mail with Gmail. Those of you who have and use Gmail at home, for example, know how annoying it is to have to go back to work and use the traditional e-mail interface, which doesn't make threads of e-mail discussions, and doesn't allow multiple tags for conversations.

Google Wave, designed by Lars and Jens Rasmussen (creators of Google Maps), is the next paradigm shift in communications user interface. Frankly, it does so much that I'm a bit afraid of it.

Here is a 1hour, 20 minute video on YouTube introducing Google Wave from a developer conference in May. (You can safely skip the first 2-3 minutes)

As an example of what problems Google Wave solves is this:
- On a wiki (such as Wikipedia), it's very easy to edit a document collaboratively, but the discussions on that page are difficult to do. You have to manually structure the tree of the conversation, and manually add your user signature.
- Conversely, on e-mail, it's easy to see who made what comment about a document, but it's very annoying to pull that together.
- With Google Docs, they made a bit of inroads, by allowing discussion via Google Chat (or whatever their chat module is called; I hate using chat), but that's in a sidebar to the Google Docs window.
- With Google Wave, the whole thing is all together, you can see comments about parts of the document inline, as well as who made them and when, and you can also hide the comments to see just the document itself. You can add someone new to the document, and they will see the most recent version, but they can also see a playback of where that document came from.

Another example:
- In Gmail, messages with the same subject line are grouped into threads or conversations. Gmail tries its hardest to figure out when these are the same conversation and when to split them.
- If someone in the conversation changes the subject line, it will start a new thread, which is annoying when a non-Gmail user replies with their own comments in the subject line.
- Furthermore, when you're having a conversation among a dozen people, and you separate comments out to have a private conversation with one of the others, you have two options: you can change the subject line--making it harder to find the sub-conversation when looking at the main conversation, or you can keep the subject line the same, burying the private conversation in the larger group thread.
- Google Wave solves this very well, and keeps privacy relatively secure. (I'll note, however, that it seems anybody can add an additional party to a conversation very easily, and that additional party will be able to see back into that conversation. This is a security risk, as when someone on a private e-mail list forwards the message to someone outside the list.)

Google Wave has lots of extensibility and existing integration with other services, such as image searches and (*sigh*) twitter, but the neatest aspect is the live interaction:
- Google Wave updates the conversation/discussion/collaboration live on other participants' Google Wave interfaces as well. So unlike in a chat client, where at most you'll see that someone is typing a response, your response will appear character-by-character as you type it (you can disable this when composing more delicate messages).
- Google Wave also corrects your spelling live. Not just identifying non-word typos, but contextual typos. The example they use in the video is "I would like some been dip": even though "been" is a valid word, it understands from the context that it is not the right word, and it corrects it live. Grammar Nazis rejoice: It also recognizes to/too/two errors and, I assume, their/there/they're errors. If it is not highly confident, it will underline the word instead of automatically replacing it.
- Even more rock-awesome, it has a translation feature, so you can converse--live--with people in other languages, and it will translate your message as you type it! (Toward the end of the video, last 5 or so minutes)

The best part is they plan to open-source it, and users on different implementations will be able to communicate amongst each other.

It's really hard to understand what Google Wave does without seeing the video. The video is a bit long-winded at times, but watching the whole thing reassured me of some of the concerns I had with it early on (such as privacy and version control). I'm still not sure if I've got my head wrapped entirely around the paradigm, but it looks like a promising extension of productivity tools. (There's even a text-based terminal interface!)

I've requested an invitation to Google Wave, and I hope that those I collaborate with will also be early adopters. It has a lot of potential, and I hope to be able to use it.

- RG>

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

15 Ways to Celebrate National Grouch Day

October 15 is National Grouch Day. For those amateur grouches out there wondering how to make it through National Grouch Day who weren't satisfied with my last suggestion of how to celebrate National Grouch Day, here is a list of fifteen ways to celebrate:

  • Don't.

  • Look for fault in everything and everybody you come into contact with. If you can't find any, turn your attention elsewhere and try again.

  • Correct the spelling, grammar, and factual errors in the newspaper with a pen. Then put it back in the pile at the coffeeshop (or the newsstand).

  • When people ask questions they don't really want to hear the answer to, like "how's it going," waste their time with longwinded answers.

  • Let something bother you. Wake up in the middle of the night to blog about it. Extra points if you tried to ignore it by going to sleep but instead let it keep you up until the middle of the night.

  • Rant.

  • Go to any length possible to be in a position to say "I told you so," but let it go without saying.

  • Always be prepared to tell the story of the last person you saw saying or doing something stupid, or who pissed you off. Tell this story to everyone you have the opportunity to tell (except the person in question). With each iteration, refine the narrative and be more cocky about your role.

  • Put someone on hold. Or time your absence from your office when you know someone is going to call.

  • USE ALL CAPS AT LEAST ONCE A DAY to make your point.

  • Make others uncomfortable by telling outrageous (yet technically plausible) lies about yourself. Using their reaction, turn the conversation to them.

  • Procrastinate.

  • Visit and vote down the entries that aren't funny, and the ones that are funny but in the wrong style.

  • Bait [other] nitpickers and lash out at them for not seeing your subtle point. (Avoid Muphry's Law)
Have a nasty National Grouch Day.

- RG>

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Swap Box Testimonial

On Friday night, I wrote the post Swap Boxes Save Lives! immediately after meeting Andy Williams.

That night, Andy e-mailed me with photos and his story, entitled How a piece of garbage saved me from trashing my life (or a serendipidous story of how salvage saved my life) (reprinted with permission). It speaks for itself.

- RG>

Dear Grouchy,

Firstly, I must say that your name is misleading. I do not find you grouchy at all, and I think its a shame that your parents chose that name.

It was nice meeting you tonight, although we met briefly about a year ago when you overheard me talking to a staff member at Bridgehead about an orange rubber band bracelet that someone "threw away". You were in the cafe typing on your laptop ("coffee culture" is intriguing in how people like to be alone together), and when I asked the staff member if it had been his, you seemed surprised and interrupted the conversation telling me it was your bracelet that I claimed as my treasure. Little did I know that your refuse would be my refuge. That rubber band would not only
change my life, but save it at least once.

My sister was visiting from near Almonte and I wanted to show her a neat little thing called a "Swap Box". Nailed to the side of a telephone pole by Bridgehead at MacLaren and Elgin was a wooden box adorned with paisley type groovy letters drawn on with marker, indicating, "Swap Box". It was a repository of refuge for some and treasures for other. The concept was that you would take something you need, and leave something you don't. I proudly displayed it to visitors to my sector of Centretown, each time they would visit, and, held it up as an example of "where community met creativity".

On that fateful day I opened the Swap Box I saw an orange elastic bracelet, similar in style to the Yellow Livestrong bracelets worn to commemorate cancer survivors. Engraved in the orange rubber were the words, "I count". Words are only words unless we breathe life into them. Still, the words attracted me. I rubbed my thumb over the letters as I thought of all the times I had been unfaithful towards myself and irresponsible towards myself at the expense of accommodating others, and, a demanding profession. Did I count? I had not been acting as if I did.

As I placed the bracelet on my wrist, I thought particularly about my health. Why was it so hard to commit to my health? At 41 I needed to get serious about exercise. It was no longer optional. I had begun smoking 3 years earlier and was ashamed of that. I resolved to make a change. I had been diagnosed diabetic, a disease shared by a sister and my mother. I would use that bracelet as a reminder to commit to myself the time and energy I needed to be healthy.

Immediately I quit smoking. I sold my car and I bought a bicycle. I began running. I felt defeated each time I went out to run, but I reminded myself to be gentle towards myself. Every time I wanted to tell myself I was "too tired" or "didn't feel like it", I rubbed my thumb over those words "I count", and got up and did what I needed to do. My energy increased. My lung capacity increased greatly. I could breath easier. I could run further and faster.

A few months later disaster struck. My intestine burst from something called Diverticultis. I had severe blood poisoning and periontinitis. I had to have emergency surgery and a cholostomy. The emergency surgery was rough. After surgery, the surgeon told my sisters that the following 48 hours would be crucial in determining as to whether I would live, and, that I would likely need to be put on artificial respiration if my breathing didn't hold up, which was tenuous. Needless to say, I believe that recommitment to my health and the constant reminder with the physical presence of that rubber band saved my life. In some ways my recovery was quick and in some ways it was slow. I made it though. And I keep wearing that bracelet to this day. And each day in all the decisions I made--especially the ones about exercise--I reminded myself that "I count" with that visible flourescent orange band on my wrist.

I joined 2 baseball leagues and I bought a bicycle. I continued running. This fall I won a prize on my baseball league for being the fastest runner. I bicycle from Parliament to Carp and surrounding communities to Ottawa on a regular basis on weekends. The cholostomy was reversed and the health of my intestine recovered. The diabetes reversed and my blood sugars returned to normal levels.

This winter I am playing floor hockey and taking swimming lessons and I am going to keep on running. My goal is to complete my first triathlon next summer. I know I can do it. I am showing myself the same dedication and loyalty that I have shown so many others all my life, because at the age of 42 I have finally finally come to understand that I really do count.

Grouchy, I'm not sure if I asked you this but, I felt that when someone put that bracelet in there they did so with a wish and that I was the benefactor of the wish. I always wondered did I make that up in my head, or, did someone really make a wish when they put that bracelet in the Swap Box?...

I believe humanity is interconnected. We never know what impact our actions might have. When a stone is thrown in a pond, the impact is made not only where the stone lands but across the pond. Regardless of whether you made a wish or not, when you put that rubber-band bracelet in the Swap Box, you "threw a stone in the pond", and the impact of a stone on water if felt in ripples through the pond. This month, my work takes "across the pond" to The Hague, Switzerland and Italy, and I hope the ripples keep going on and on...I am grateful for how a seemingly meaningless act by a total stranger has contributed to a profound impact in my life. The adage says that one person's trash is another one's treasure. I have come to treasure my life.

Grouchy, I wishing you the deepest successes in life, however it is that you may define success, and, whether or not you become more or less grouchy.

Yours very truly,

Andy Williams

Friday, October 02, 2009

Swap Boxes Save Lives!

UPDATE: Read the story in Andy's words on this subsequent post

Last September, I blogged about a swap box story: after repairing a swap box on Elgin street (a box which I would repair again), I had met a man at Bridgehead whose life had been touched by a cheap silicon bracelet I'd left in a swapbox.

We happened to meet again tonight (coincidentally sitting at adjacent tables), and thirteen months later, Andy Williams is still wearing his bracelet:

We talked for a bit, and he reiterated his story: he used to weigh 290 pounds, and the bracelet helped motivate him to lose the weight. Whenever he felt like cutting short an exercise regime, he'd look at the bracelet and remember that "hey, I count!"

He used to have a few medical issues that were either caused or complicated by his weight, which are now under control or gone. He's involved in a host of different sports and physical activities, and he's the fastest runner on his baseball team.

I have difficulty appreciating many forms of art (for one, you can't take photos in most galleries), but swap boxes are a form of interactive art that leaves you with a free souvenir. Like tweenbots, swap boxes are out in the open, vulnerable, depending on the trust of passersby to not only not destroy it, but also to help fulfill its function. A swap box that survives for months is a source of community pride. As Andy's story shows, the interactive element provides an opportunity for the unexpected to occur, for someone's life to be touched. That's not just art, that's a public service.

Now that El Maks is in Montreal, there aren't so many swap boxes in Ottawa. It's time the rest of us pick up the slack!

- RG>

PS: Dachau is in Germany

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Lansdowne Live: Go To Heckle

[After attending tonight's lengthy Open House and Q&A meeting on Lansdowne Park, I accumulated a lot of handouts and took a lot of notes. I'll try to post as much of the more useful information as I have time tonight, split into separate posts.]

Around 4:30 pm this afternoon, City Hall announced that tonight's consultation for the Lansdowne Live proposal would include a Question & Answer session, something that was sorely lacking at the first two sessions on Monday and Tuesday.

While the sign below announced the session would start at 7:30, I didn't hear anybody announce that it was starting to the hall, which is normal procedure for this type of thing. I walked in while someone read the long list of guidelines and expectations for the event, then repeated them in French. It was a bumper crowd in there.

While City Manager Kent Kirkpatrick's September 15 memo to Councillors about the consultation process said that "Residents are encouraged to voice their opinions, comments and questions, all of which will be recorded by City staff and incorporated into the final report on the consultations," it was not clear that anybody was taking notes, aside from me. I gave up two hours in after my wrist cramped and I filled my pad of paper.

The questions were long and preambled, and the responses from Kirkpatrick were also long, but that was good because it meant he was explaining these things, instead of just referencing an argument buried in a report in order to dismiss the concern. Since the public record won't be available until the report is prepared months from now, I thought I'd get as much of it out as I could from my notes:

Unfortunately, things took a quick turn for the worse when the second speaker, John Vincent (names are all phonetic), asked (half with words, half with numbers) why the private sector gets its return first. Kirkpatrick's choice of the term "closed financial system" drew heckles from the crowd, accusing him of using jargon. These heckles then drew heckles from others in the audience, telling everybody else to shut up and let him answer the question. I kept my pen to paper and rolled my eyes.

Third speaker, twelve-year-old Jason, asked "why do we need all these stores & cinemas," listing a variety of shops and services (including, of course, a candy store) available already in the Glebe and nearby.

Kirkpatrick gave what would be a standard response to many of the questions: it's what was in OSEG's (Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, the proponents of Lansdowne Live) proposal, and is part of the cost of rebuilding the stadium if it is to be paid by development charges.

Kirkpatrick continued. "Why is it necessary? It's not necessary--" (applause cuts him off).

He tried again. "It's not necessary if--" (applause again)

He abandoned that way of framing his statement, and went on to repeat that Council wanted a plan that was revenue-neutral, and which also had no residential development, and this was the amount of commercial development required to pay for the other development.

Fourth speaker Kevin O'Donnell said that since he's from Kitchissippi, that makes him a "NITBY" - "Not In Their Back Yard". He asked when will we get to the point of no return, i.e. where there will be penalties or obligations for pulling out, a reference to the recently-settled lawsuit by Siemens for the cancelled Light Rail project. Kirkpatrick said that a timetable of future steps would be presented in November, which would identify the next steps, including point-of-no-return decisions probably in early 2010. Kirkpatrick pointed out that there's lots of development needd on the plan, for example the transportation strategy outlined on the panels needs to be developed through a transportation study into a transportation plan.

At 8pm, Fifth speaker Ron Cooks of Mooney's Bay asked why a tendering process wasn't considered, and why the international design competition was canceled. This sparked an impassioned response by Kirkpatrick: "A lot of people in this room believe that I unilaterally canceled that competition..." and then went on to say that he suspended the design competition and immediately informed Council, and recommended that Council consider the OSEG proposal. Then the Senators proposal came in, and in April, Council decided to tell staff to negotiate with the OSEG proposal. "At any point in time, Council--any member of Council--could have said, through a motion of council, to direct staff to re-initiate the design competition... that didn't happen."

In response to this, eighth speaker G. Paterson asked, why should Council vote to re-instate a design competition when it didn't de-instate it? He likened Kirkpatrick's "Council was aware" argument to "the dog ate my homework."

At 8:30, twelfth speaker Dan Mullaly asked Kirkpatrick to reveal all communications and information related to the initial proposal to make it an open and transparent process. Mullaly said that the five councillors he spoke to don't know who in the City was the first to be approached by the developers. Kirkpatrick mentioned that there were issues with privacy legislation and that Council asked the Auditor General to look at the project. By this point, Capital Ward Councillor Clive Doucet was fuming. "When first contact was made? No one knows."

Responding to Kirkpatrick's comment a half hour earlier, Doucet pointed out that no councillor would have had the power to cancel the design competition (which, he pointed out, had been initiated with almost unanimous support), and that canceling it would have required 3/4 of councillors to vote to do so. Yet Kirkpatrick somehow made it happen. An "Abrogation of the democratic process," Doucet called it, to strong applause.

Somerset Ward Councllor Diane Holmes suggested that the suspension may have been done in response to a request from the mayor, but we don't know, hence Mr. Mullaly's request to reveal the correspondence.

Since all the other councillors were speaking, Gloucester-Southgate Councillor Diane Deans spoke up: "I voted to move to the next step of the process," she said, "but with specific direction." The motion she sponsored for the City to talk with OSEG, which passed 17-4, was because of the conditional franchise. The motion specifically called for no housing, no large-scale commercial, and other requirements. "It was my expectation that that direction from Council would be respected. And I can tell you tonight that if I had known it would not have been respected, I would have never put it forward."

Orleans Councillor Bob Monette was not pleased by this, and he was next to speak: "Kent Kirkpatrick did a great thing to give you people an opportunity to speak tonight, and the disrespect that you are showing them is unacceptable..." bringing on a loud hail of boos.

He chastised that crowd would "...attack the credibility of Kent Kirkpatrick, of City Management, of Council, of the City, and I am walking away from this meeting," ironically performing one of Clive Doucet's common tricks. The boos turned to cheers as he left.

Councillor Doucet then called on everybody to have respect and silence for Kent Kirkpatrick's responses.

Councillor Marianne Wilkinson, who also sat through the entire night, added that she came to this meeting to hear from the public, and asked people to keep the questions (and answers) short to allow as many people as possible to be heard.

Skipping ahead, the 21st speaker asked his question at 8:55 pm, five minutes before the meeting was scheduled to end (spoiler alert: it went overtime). This speaker said he was a supporter of Lansdowne Live, but there were red flags, particularly in the financials. "I love the deal, but the numbers don't work. We're at the bottom of the waterfall." What's the benefit, he asked.

Kirkpatrick agreed that "What's the benefit?" is the central question. What's the value to the City of Ottawa, to need an open-air sports facility, what's the entertainment value. "If the answer is none, then that really gets to the heart of whether this should be a priority for the City or not."

The thirty-fourth speaker speaking just shy of 9:30, asked a question, mainly to the Councillors in attendance, about moving forward. "How do we get this back on the rails." In other words, the public process was interrupted to let Lansdowne Live through, how can we get that public process back? There were no other proposals because there was no framework for the City to ask for one. (One of the attendees of the open house told me that he had been working on a team for an alternate proposal when the design competition was canceled).

Of course, you ask a question about how to get back on the rails, and the discussion gets derailed. Councillors had the floor for the next few minutes:

Diane Holmes said that the first step would be to get a majority of councillors to vote against it at Committee and Council.

Diane Deans identified the Councillors present, as well as Clive Doucet (who shortly returned to the room) and Bob Monette, who had left. Councillor Deans said that she was the only one who was on Council the last time it was proposed to redevelop Lansdowne park, and the feedback from that public process informed the limits placed in the motion she had moved (the one that passed 17-4 to move forward). There isn't only one point of view, and "you're all doing your part tonight," she said. "I'd rather make no decision than a bad decision."

Councillor Doucet pointed out the procedural lack of precedent for the City's situation. Within a year of making a decision Council needs a 3/4 vote to reconsider it, and once the procedural motion to reconsider passes (if it does), the decision itself is reconsidered, and 50% plus one will decide the actual issue. But does Council need a motion to reconsider when it never decided to cancel the design competition in the first place?

Councillor Wilkinson pointed out that there are some councillors who will be for Lansdowne Live no matter what happens at the consultations, and some who will be against it no matter what. Wilkinson says she's in the middle, and therefore Q&A sessions like this are important, as it's a very complex and important decision. "We need a more-right-than-wrong decision."

This was when I ran out of paper, so I left. I hear that a few more speakers came up to the microphone, and the last question was given to Catherine Gardner.

- RG>