Monday, December 31, 2012

RG's Workshop: Mega fridge magnet (or: keeping up with the Scrimshaws)

At last, some spare time in which to catch up on some overdue blog posts about stuff I've built...

So a couple years back, David Scrimshaw shared an idea of his to use the large magnets from old speaker cabinets as fridge magnets for holding drill bits.

Not long after this, I used a similar principle to make a fridge decoration, only I used the sleeve from a discarded baby shirt and tied the ends to make it look a bit like a giant cloth peppermint wrapper. I failed to take a photo of this, and I must have given it away because I can no longer find it on my fridge.

But the curbside has since yielded more speakers, including a very large pair of cabinets earlier this year. I dismantled the cabinets and extracted just the speakers to bring them home (I also kept the screws that held them in, which were also of very good quality).

To power a big speaker, you need a big magnet. Here it is on my fridge, with a Kryptonite U-lock for scale:

It also holds tools, such as a hammer, chisel, wrench, screwdriver, and pliers:

I needed the U-lock back on my bike, but decorated it otherwise with tools and binder clips.

Tools, and a magnetic clip on the woodsaw which is holding a fortune cookie slip that reads, naturally, "others are drawn to your magnetic personality."

- RG>

Friday, November 23, 2012

The dentist spells "guilt" with a tea

I had my biannual dental checkup today, or as I commented this afternoon, via Twitter:

The lengthy explanation, common to all my medical rants, is summarized in the subsequent tweet:

The hygienist and I had established which medications I was on--a depressing enumeration in itself. These include the eyedrops I take due to a reaction to the antidepressants I take. Also, the antidepressants. She asked me whether my asthma inhaler was Ventolin or salbutamol. Do I know the dosage? Hell no! That's for the doctor and the pharmacist to figure out, I just take them.

Anyway, throughout the visit, the hygienist kept harping on about how every little thing I do in my life causes dental problems. She didn't dwell on her observation that I've been keeping better care of my teeth than at any previous visit, it was just constant questions and nagging 'tips'.

As an example, she asked if I drink either coffee or tea:

Yes, I drink tea.

"What kind? Black, green, herbal..." Black.

"With sugar?" Yes.

"How many teaspoonfuls?" I don't know, I pour the sugar from a thing; a fair amount, but you'll be pleased to know that I leave my tea weak so I don't have to sweeten it as much as a full dose.

"Fairly quickly or drawn out over a long period?" Usually over a 2-3 hour visit to the coffeeshop.

"Well you should try to drink it in a shorter period because the sugar breaks down in your mouth for as much as a half hour after every sip." And if I intersperse it with sips of water? "If you swish with the water after each sip, that will help slightly to balance the pH."

Curiously, she didn't bother to ask about the donut, icing-heavy carrot cake, or mostly-sugar cookie that I often eat (also slowly) with my tea, but I'm sure if I had told her about these should would have suggested which fork I should use for the carrot cake to minimize damage to my teeth.

"By the way," she added afterwards, "you should use a teaspoon to measure how much sugar you put in your tea." Yeah, thanks.

She also assumed that, like morning coffee addicts, I drink tea as an end in itself--hence the suggestion to drink it quickly. I don't. I do, however, enjoy (or at least prefer) going to the coffeeshop for a couple of hours where I can read the paper and get some work done in a quasi-social setting instead of alone at home where there are plenty of chores begging for my attention. My coffeeshop routine is a predictable, reliable way for me to unwind after a long day at the dentist.

And since I don't drink a coffeeshop's namesake drink, I order tea--which I only tolerate in would-you-like-some-tea-with-your-sugar dilutions. Again, I'm fairly particular about what I expect in a visit: if they don't have the right kind of tea, or if the newspapers are gone, or if there are no seats left, it interrupts the predictable rhythm and can throw my mood right out of whack.

In essence, I don't go to the coffeeshop to drink tea, I drink tea to go to the coffeeshop. Because it is something I know makes me a happy Grouch.

As for the medications, it shouldn't be a very big leap of logic to infer that a person who is taking antidepressants does so due to some sort of behaviour disorder; in particular, one which might count low self-esteem as one of its symptoms.

In my case, I don't necessarily suffer from low self-esteem per se, but as described above I do sometimes require things to be just so in order to avoid my fragile mood circuits from tripping a breaker (or worse, blowing a fuse).

The tea interrogation was just one example of many similar lines of questioning about my tooth-brushing habits. Each little quiz was accompanied by a consortium of 'helpful' suggestions of how to restructure my life to put dental hygiene as the top priority (thankfully she didn't describe it this way). For example, she demonstrated in great detail a flossing technique suspiciously similar to the one I already use. (Ironically, she didn't ask me first about that.)

Dental hygiene as my top priority? Fuck you, my mood is my top priority, and you're souring it. If there's one health thing that I remember to do each day, it's taking my meds so I don't get withdrawal symptoms. And waking up on time. And remembering to eat.

The 'helpful suggestions' (which also, thankfully, was not a phrase she used), and various patronizing, loaded, questions reiterated throughout the visit, are each presumably intended to encourage a particular behavioural change. Floss more, floss better, brush before bedtime, use these stick things between your teeth, put less sugar in your tea, drink your tea faster, use this special toothpaste which has a high pH, and so on... I'm sure I missed some; perhaps I should have asked for an itemized receipt.

You've already told me that my teeth and gums are in better shape than they were before, but all these suggestions, and the condescending way you make them, do *wonders*, lady, for my self-esteem and mood. The easiest behavioural change to fix that? Well, that would be to convince myself that you're wrong and to start taking worse care of my teeth just to spite you. Or, more simply, I could stop going to the dentist.

You want behaviour change? Be careful what you wish for.

- RG>

Friday, September 07, 2012

RG's workshop: Stereo system switchboard

It's been a while since I wrote anything on here, and even longer since I blogged about anything interesting. (Oh crap, I hate it when people start off their blog posts talking about how long it's been since they last blogged. You know what? Strike that first sentence. Let's try at this again.)

I have a relatively small apartment, though it is big enough for me and my stuff. It has enough rooms, including one I use as my workshop.

In the living room of my apartment, I have a stereo system. That is to say, there's a stereo device I found on the curb somewhere, through which I route the audio that accompanies the projector screen (among other uses).

The stereo has two sources of external input, not including the radio/CD/cassette stuff built into it. These inputs consist of one end of an audio cable being plugged into the stereo unit's "AUX INPUT" jack, and the other end of the cable split, one path plugged into the turntable in the bedroom, the other connected to a long cable with a standard mini jack. I can plug the mini jack into my laptop or my Blackberry, and the cable is long enough--and my apartment small enough--that I can bring either device into any room of the house to 'remotely' control the audio.

So for example, I can watch online TV in the kitchen with my laptop on the kitchen table and the audio going through the soundsystem back out to the speakers in the kitchen. I can also use my new Blackberry's FM tuner to listen to the radio (I only started listening to the radio again when I got the new Blackberry last week, and I've thus far tended to listen to the station that has all the ads for hearing aids and funeral service providers). The Blackberry (as with the iPod I briefly owned) needs you to plug in the headphones to listen to the radio, because they act like the antenna, but the stereo jack works just as well.

Anyhow, the stereo sits under this desk which I did not find on the curb. I built it with my own two hands, and a screwdriver and hammer, according to the assembly instructions from the non-Swedish office supply store where I had bought it.

The stereo sits under the desk as does one pair of speakers.

Another pair of speakers goes into the kitchen (which can extend into the bathroom if and when I see fit to have them do so), and as of very recently, a third pair is wired through the wall into the bedroom (which I can extend into the workshop, should I see fit to do that also).

The thing is, I do not want all of the speakers to always be on. I only need the sound in the room(s) which I am occupying. So I need a switch system.

I bought a basic audio switchbox from Radio Shack ("the Source" in modern parlance), which didn't really work. Even after I fixed some bad soldering inside it, there were issues with bleeding between the left and right channels. I also couldn't separately activate the left and right units of a pair of speakers.

So I stuck with my previous scheme of a pair of Y adapters on the stereo output cables and plugged or unplugged the Y ends into the ends of the cables for the desired speakers, all of which I have patched into RCA jacks. I had had the jacks stuffed into the grooves of the CD holder under the desk top (circled in the above photo).

But this did not satisfy me. Functionally, it was not an elegant solution to have cables sticking through a grille. So I decided to build a switchboard (you digital-age kids might not know what a manual switchboard is, but they work very nicely).

The first step was to build a panel that would fit into the space where the grille is. The grille is wedged between two columns that have holes corresponding to bumps on the edge of the plastic grille.

I first bent some paperclips into latches that I inserted into the edge of the thin plywood board at the same intervals as the bumps on the grille. There is a recess underneath them, which allows them to dip out of the way and spring back up to latch the board into place (like on a door). They are tapered so that when you push the board up, they are pushed by the edge of the hole in the cylinder into the recess in the board, releasing the board.

I'd seen this trick done online somewhere months or years ago, but don't remember where. It was probably from a project documented by Rob Cockerham or Matthias Wandel.

Anyhow, it works, and I can put the board into the space, and remove it when I need to by pushing up to release the latches.

The next step was to cut holes for the RCA jacks on the ends of the speaker wires. I needed to get the jack through the board, but I also wanted it to be snug so I could push the Y connector into it without the plug just falling through the board.

To accomplish this, I settled on a keyhole-type shape, with two round holes connected by a channel. One hole was larger than the RCA jack, allowing me to stick it through, and the other was slightly smaller, allowing it to be held snug. The holes were connected by a channel that is wide enough for the cable to pass through. (on the right below is my first attempt, which used a hole that was too small)

After cutting the holes for the four stets of speakers (kitchen, living room, bedroom, and a spare set of holes for future expansion), I painted it black to match the piece of the desk it was replacing. The only black paint I had were a couple of cans of spray paint I found one bountiful day of treasure hunting (a.k.a. curb shopping, dumpster diving, etc.):

My only previous experience using spray paint was indoors, and resulted in everything in the room, including plenty of electronics, being covered with a yellow dust. Thankfully, this room was in somebody else's house, and the electronics were theirs, as was the bright idea of spray painting indoors.

To alleviate this problem, I taped together some newspaper pages into a cube, put the board inside, reached in with the can of spray paint and sprayed it as best as I could with the cube closed. I let the dust settle a bit and reapplied the parts that I missed (the cube filled with spray dust, completely obscuring the workpiece so you couldn't see if you had gotten it all).

The paint job worked well enough for me, for something that would most of the time be in the shadows under the desk top anyway.

The only remaining issue was that the jacks sometimes pulled out of the board when disconnecting the switch cables. This was fixed with that quintessential desktop accessory, the trusty binder clip.

Normally at this point in the blog post I'd go back and review it to make sure it makes sense and doesn't drone on too long, but I'm too tired and I might forget to come back to it if I leave it to another day.

I've built (and photographed the construction of) other things since I last blogged, and I'll maybe hopefully eventually probably get around to blogging those also.

- RG>

Friday, June 08, 2012

My optometrist says I can't lift heavy weights

Yesterday I had my biennial eye exam. I've been wearing glasses since gradeschool so this was a fairly routine procedure: first the technician sticks your face into a machine and tells you to keep your eye open for so long it would tear up even if you didn't know she was about to blow a puff of air into your eye (which you do know because she tells you it will). Then she shoves your face into another machine that takes a picture of the inside of your eye. Then she sits you in a chair where you cover one eye and asks you to read the same lines of characters over and over again, and you wrestle with the question of whether you can actually see the characters or you just remember them from the last eye exam two years ago and the six times in a row you just read it with various combinations of eye coverings. The doctor then takes over, asks you if you prefer #1 or #2 a lot while you look through a device that you hope nobody will photograph you at, tells you whether there has been any change in your prescription, and the rest is paperwork.

Of course, the doctor also asks you if there was anything you wanted to raise. Generally a formality, in my case, whatever type of doctor I'm visiting, I usually have a couple of things to mention. I'm sensitive. And obsessive. I notice things. And I have no clue whether this is simply something that "normal" people are expected to experience.

For example, two days prior I noticed some crazy floater action in my eyes. I was in a relatively dark room with windows looking out to the bright sunset, and as I shifted my eyes, it looked as though someone was twitching a snowglobe full of wet rice noodles in front of my eyes, the mass of noodles slowly following the direction of movement. I figured this was probably normal and just due to the odd angle of the sunlight traveling through my eye fluid.

I've had other issues with my eyes also. In addition to the counterproductive productivity side-effect of the antidepressant I've been on for the last year and a half is that it makes my eyes itchy. The itchiness makes me blink a lot and rub my eyes, which leads to more problems. It hasn't been to bad lately, which suggests that maybe just being aware of my eyes is what starts the cycle, and I've been too busy and distracted to be aware of them.

Between my G.P. and my optometrist, the best guess was that the itchiness was an allergic reaction to the antidepressants. So they put me on some prescription antihistamine eyedrops (which only work if you take them twice a day regularly because they're preventative). The allergy eye drops, however, made my eyes too dry, and I was advised to use some over-the-counter moisturizing eye drops.

To recap: the moisturizing drops are to counter the effects of the allergy eyedrops, which in turn counter the effects of the antidepressants, which in turn helps with my various aforementioned ambiguous psychological issues.

Given the ambiguity and interconnection of the problems, symptoms and treatments, none of which have a black-and-white diagnosis, I've taken to ascribing any issue with my eyes that comes up to: taking one of these drugs, forgetting to take one, stress, lack of sleep, sweat dripping into my eyes in the heat, rubbing my eyes after making contact with a furry animal, or some benign cause of another nature that could happen to anybody. Whatever the cause, I figure that any given symptoms I encounter would probably not happen if I were simply more diligent in with the eyedrop regimen. All to deal with mood issues.

With this in mind, I mentioned the floaters to the doctor anyway, and patiently went along for the ride as he made a more thorough inspection of my eyes, waiting for him to reassure me that it was nothing to be worried about. Such is how these things go when I bring this type of thing up at the end of a doctor visit.

"The good news," he said, "is that the reason you only noticed it two days ago is because the symptoms only started two days ago."

What do you mean good news? What's the bad news?

He showed me on the computer the photo of the inside of my eye (projected onto a 3D wireframe model of an eyeball no less!), and pointed to a blotch in an obscure corner of it (I assume he already planned to look into this but asked me if I had issues before launching into the investigation to avoid prompting me). Even without the image from the previous appointment as a comparison, it was obvious to the casual observer that this was not a normal thing. The other eye didn't have one.

I was informed that this blotch was where a section of my retina has detached from its supporting layers, causing a pocket where fluid had worked its way in behind the retina. Left unchecked, it could cause the rest of the retina to rip away from the back of my eye, causing potentially-irreversible blindness.

So the symptoms were not due to emotional detachment but retinal detachment. Go figure.

This type of issue, the doctor told me, needs to be addressed ASAP. As in, call the doctor the same day you see it, and get it checked within 48 hours and fixed within the week.

It was a spectacular coincidence that the symptoms had appeared just two days before my eye exam, because I probably wouldn't have done anything about it otherwise. It's entirely possible that the problem wouldn't get any worse if I didn't do anything, but treatment is pretty straightforward at this stage, and very intrusive if it gets a lot worse.

The fix involves going to a specialist to confirm the diagnosis and, assuming the specialist does so, getting lasers fired into your eye to burn off the fluid and/or reattach the retina.

So after my appointment Thursday, I get a call on Friday morning to come in to see the specialist Saturday afternoon. You know something's serious when you get an appointment with a specialist for a Saturday afternoon less than two days away.

In the meantime, I'm to contact my doctor immediately if one of a few symptoms occur, and I'm to avoid heavy lifting. Forty pounds was about the limit.

Damn, I thought. My left pannier is 15 pounds and my right pannier is 25 pounds. Exactly 40 pounds. I'm going to have to carry them back to my bike. And that's before I add tonight's groceries!

Seeing me doing this mental arithmetic, the doctor helpfully clarified that it's not like there would be a night-and-day difference between 39 lbs and 40. Somehow that helped.

At least, I thought, it won't be as bad as when I had to bike to the General Hospital--twice--for a series of asthma tests initiated by this visit to the doctor (all to confirm that, yes, I did in fact still have asthma like I told them), because those tests came with an extra hour or so of waiting before the test to allow me to cool down from the bike ride to the hospital, lest it skew the results.

"Actually..." said the doctor when I quipped about this to him. Actually what?

Because my eyes would be dilated, it wouldn't be a good idea to bike home, especially since we won't know the degree of treatment required until the specialist has a look.

Thankfully, when I whined about this on Twitter this morning, fellow cyclist Kate came to my rescue.

We'll see how it goes...

- RG>

Friday, March 30, 2012

War on the penny: Mission accomplished

The government announced in the budget that they'll be phasing out the penny after 2012.

I was going to write a blog post declaring success in my campaign to eliminate the penny by hoarding it, but so damn many people are tweeting about it (and not about the actual news in the budget) that I don't want to add too much to it. Instead I'll rant.

Back when I wrote the post in December 2010, 55% of Canadians supported ditching the penny, which means that at least 15% of Canadians wanted to ditch the penny and weren't Conservative voters. I've seen panhandlers fish the pennies out of their cups and toss them on to the sidewalk, which leaves only penny-drive charities to cry and whine (who should have taken a hint from the march of dimes in 1938.)

Now that the news is out, people are getting the idea that prices will no longer end in anything but a 0 or a 5, which is stupid. Individual items will still have stupid prices like $14.97, and round-number prices will still be thwarted by prime-number tax rates. Only once the bill is totaled and tax is applied will the number be rounded--and even then only if you're paying cash.

People also have it in their heads that the cruddy 1998 penny in their pocket would be worth something to somebody, some day. Check the eBay listings for currency and think about it for a minute. People are selling brand new bills and coins from as recently as this year. Well, they're trying to. Brand new $50 polymer bills, launched earlier this month, can be yours for only $59.55 plus $9 shipping! Or walk into any bank and get one for $50.

By sheer coincidence, last night I sorted through the old pennies I've been collecting (as well as the newer ones in good condition). I reopened my coin book after many years of neglect to discover that many of the pennies were corroding, especially the parts of the coins that were exposed to the air. I'm still going to hold on to them, but I'm not going to delude myself into thinking that they'd increase in value any faster than if I'd deposited them into a savings account.

People are also selling old bills, like the old $1 bills. Not too many takers for those, so imagine how popular your penny will be (there are mint condition uncirculated pennies from the 1980s currently going for the grand price of a dollar). There's a $20 bill form the 1954 series that is currently bidding at $22.50 (plus $4 shipping). That's less than a quarter of a percent, simple interest, over 58 years (0.20% compounded). Compare that to inflation, where $20 in 1954 would be worth $170 today.

If you look at how the sales are going (also take a look at the different quarters the Mint has made in the last decade), you'll notice that it doesn't matter whether a denomination was discontinued. What matters is if there's something special about it. That can mean scarcity, like this Silver and Niobium 2012 $5 commemorative coin, or age.

An old penny is an old penny whether or not pennies are still in circulation. And now that everyone's hoarding them because they're going to be out of circulation soon, they're not going to be scarce. Hell, there's only an hour left on this 1958 penny in very good condition. The penny was circulated, but there are no takers for the $1.99 price tag (plus $1 shipping). How much is your tarnished 2006 penny worth?

To close off the rant, I'd like to take a swing at coin collectors. In theory, coin collecting is about ascribing added value to items that were used historically. Like the Yap stones, as they age and pass from person to person they appreciate in value due to the richness of their history. In practice, the only coins that collectors give any significant value (aside from very old and very rare ones) are ones that have never been circulated, or proof coins weren't even ever intended for circulation! Or limited-edition collectible coins made of precious metals sold for much more than their material or face value. Like the ridiculous replica of Samuel de Champlain's astrolabe created for the sole purpose of being stashed in the space shuttle's cargo hold on a trip to the International Space Station, an inordinate amount of value is given to trinkets whose sole purpose is to imitate and detract from items with actual historical value.

Having a coin collection for one's own amusement is fine, but the money that people put into it--and some people aim to get out of it--is just bonkers.

After 2012, there will be no new pennies. Just as there will be never be any new 2011 pennies, or 2010 pennies, or 2009 pennies, and so on. There will still be millions of them, in people's closets and shelves and couches. The vast majority of them will still be worth only a hundredth of a dollar, even though they cost more than that to produce. It will still be illegal to melt it down for the materials.

And it will still be fun to collect them, but fun is all it is. Don't buy into the delusion that you'll make a mint from the copper-plated coin you got in your change; it's still just a penny.

- RG>

Monday, February 06, 2012

Here's to 1000 more years!

I've been using the moniker RealGrouchy online since at least 2003, and I didn't get the gmail account until 2005, but I consider the real RealGrouchy epoch to be when I started contributing to the interweboscape. This would be when I started contributing on Wikipedia, and that first contribution was on February 6, 2004, exactly eight years ago.

Eight years is scary. XKCD comic 647 scary:

Back then, Wikipedia only had a quarter million articles in English, whereas now it's approaching four million.

I first learned about Wikipedia from an article in the Ottawa Citizen the day before. The article talks about how user-generated content engenders community, and other fine stuff that made me think "wow, this is cool! I want to do this!"

I distinctly remember reading a similar article in the Citizen's Technology section a few months later that inspired me to start blogging, though I can't find it. I remember it talking about the "local blogging community", and I remember trying to find this "local blogging community". In what looks mighty foolish in retrospect, I did this by looking for other Blogger accounts that mentioned "Ottawa" in their location in the profile, and following their blogs. There was nothing particularly interesting.

I'd been writing Letters to the Editor in the Citizen for a few years, but over time the number of things printed in the paper that I wanted to write in and bitch about grew to a point where I knew most of them wouldn't be printed in order to leave space for others. Still wanting to share these opinions, I started my blog intending to publish my objections there instead.

I don't think that worked so well, because the first few years of my blog posts were mostly about how little I was doing. Some were specifically empty, because I didn't realize at the time that you could back-date posts (or maybe you couldn't yet... I remember tagging didn't come along for another couple of years) and I wanted to have a few entries I could write over for more reference-style posts (which I never bothered to do, and now "pages" lets you do that, which I haven't used either).

I know it sounds ironic, a person with the handle RealGrouchy going out in search of community, but there are rationalizations that I'll leave you to hypothesize. I'd picked the name some time prior as a handle for some online game, since RealGrouchy was one that was easily available (who would ever want to call themselves that!?).

Through it all, I have written primarily for myself, in what I can imagine is sometimes agonizing detail for my readers (but details I nevertheless want to record for my own reference). When I have written for others, it is primarily so they can see how wonderfully awesome I am. I have also written about other year-increment milestones, such as my McDonald's Fiveniversary (still going strong), and my annual holiday posts on topics like Earth Hour and National Grouch Day.

I've gotten a lot more busy in meatspace, doing things that I prefer to keep separate from here. But around me has grown a local blogging community, and some weeks I write more in the comments of others' blogs than I do in posts on my own. The persona of RealGrouchy grew, largely in the few years I spent on the XKCD forums, starting as user number 48 on the forums, becoming a moderator, and gaining celebrity—and, following my retirement, legendary—status on a site that has had nearly 300,000 user registrations.

But the more things change, the more things stay the same: I don't write so much about local issues as I'd originally planned, and instead write about stuff I've done or made with little reference to the outside world. I do still bitch about stuff, though I've developed a more subtle way of doing it. Not to mention more socially productive ways. I've also thought up many large projects that I never finished, and some I never even started.

I'm proud that I did all this—with a couple rare exceptions that I try not to acknowledge—anonymously. I wanted to link to a blog post picking apart Ken Gray's assault on anonymous bloggers, but I see that I never finished and published it. The gist of it is that he's a bigger coward despite using his real name than I am because I use a pseudonym. I've accomplished all this, made friends (many of whom I've subsequently met), been appointed to positions of power, and earned respect for my opinions, all without most of those people knowing what my name is. They know who I am, insofar as I present myself as RealGrouchy, and the identity of RealGrouchy is as strong as if I'd used my own name (and perhaps even stronger).

I knew from the start that I wanted to be anonymous. I didn't have any particular reason to do so at the time, but I knew that if a good reason were to come along, I'd be unable to put the cat back in the bag. However, it has worked well. It is great at making you think twice before putting something in writing, because you have to think about whether a particular detail will give you away, or if you'll be unable to say something with your real name after you say it with the pseudonym. The challenge of walking this line can be fun.

At the same time that writing under a pseudonym helps with restraint, it is also liberating, because I can say things that would be out of character for me, but are entirely in character for RealGrouchy. There are plenty of people who know RealGrouchy and have met the man behind him (and I thank them for keeping them separate). But for others, when you write as "RealGrouchy," they expect you to sound angry, and don't react as harshly when you are. After enough correspondence that people get to know RealGrouchy, it's nice to hear people say "you're not all that grouchy after all," because generally, mentally healthy people aren't all that grouchy.

So there you have it. Eight years of RealGrouchy. Here's to the next binary millenium!

- RG>

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

In defence of Larry O'Brien

Here I thought I'd retired the O'Brien tag on this blog, but of course this can't be.

When it was first confirmed that it was the real Larry O'Brien who had used a racial slur in a tweet about the U.S. primaries, my reaction was more fascination than upset.

Back when people paid attention to him, he was known for saying really stupid things, and it was always fun to watch him fumble his way out of it. Fun, that's all there is. To suggest he is racist because he used one racial slur is like accusing someone of infanticide for making a dead baby joke.

As hilarious as it is to watch him weasel out of it ("I already talked to my Hispanic friends and apologized to them"). I can easily give him the benefit of the doubt. I was at a talk on a matter of fiscal policy and a twenty-something used the phrase "final solution" to describe the goal of addressing the issue. After the meeting, someone sent an e-mail around expressing concern that this person used this term without realizing that it was Hitler's name for the Holocaust.

Racial slurs are a bit different than a phrase like "Final Solution" which has a benign denotation, but the comparators are stronger in this analogy than the differences. In order to reasonably jump from "O'Brien is a misguided twit who doesn't pick his words well" to "O'Brien is a racist" one would have to conclude that what he said was racist, not necessarily how he said it. Don't get me wrong, "spic" is a racist term, but if using the term makes you racist in any context, then I'm a racist for telling you that Larry used it. So context does matter, but many of the people criticizing him know little more of the situation than the fact that it included a nasty word. [Edit: to eat my own words, I wasn't aware of his comment about muslims until after writing up this blog post, which certainly puts more weight to epithets referencing O'Brien] If you take that out of the equation, we already know he's a misguided twit who doesn't pick his words well, so what's the harm of another turd in his outhouse?

And that's why my take on this whole situation is somewhat blasé. He's not the Mayor anymore, and people only pay attention to him when he does something stupid, so really he's pretty harmless. And as I wrote about after his acquittal on charges of electoral shenanigans, I'd far prefer him to be remembered for having been horribly incompetent as mayor of the capital of Canada than for some stupid thing he said after the world stopped caring about him.

He even reinforced this (albeit inadvertently) in his video confession to the Ottawa Sun when he remarked at how smoothly City Hall was running now. Remember that he had never sat through a City Council meeting before running for Mayor—a key plank in his platform, not just an embarrassing truth—so he never learned that things were running alright before him also.

As I tweeted the other day, the real surprise to me is not that some people now think less of Larry O'Brien for using a racial slur, but that some people's opinion of him still had room to go down.

- RG>

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Grammar Nazi's Triumph

Kettleman's Bagels has had a couple of unfortunate connections to stories in the media. There was the time that I caught them with taxi hands, and more recently, some of their product was recalled due to insufficient labeling. Of course, I still go there, because the bagels taste good.

But the thing that gets me most about Kettleman's is the motley signage. Lots of notes are scribbled in permanent marker on white paper, taped to various surfaces. And they all have apostrophes galore where they don't belong.

They renovated their store this past fall, and redesigned their garbage bin to have a hole for recycling. A nice new container, with modern stylings.

Then they slapped this onto it:

paper sign with text reading Recycle Only glass + can's please."Recycle only / glass + can's please."

Now, I'm easily perturbed by such miscarriages of punctuation as this. I also like a good challenge. The easy thing to do (aside from ignoring it) would be to scratch out the apostrophe, but that would just draw more attention to it and make it look uglier. It'd be sufficiently passive-aggresive, but clumsy. Also, not much of a challenge.

I could also point out the typo to a staffperson, but nobody likes to feel patronized by being called out that way. (The store has a few signs where apostrophes were clearly added after the fact, so getting them to make a new handwritten sign would likely have little long-term effect). Generally with this type of thing you want to give the offender an 'out' so they learn what their error was while still saving face, pretending that they knew all along how it was supposed to be.

I figured if I was going to fix this, I was going to fix it completely. No leaving the Kettleman's sign-scribblers to solving it halfway. I am a perfectionist, when I have the patience to see something through.

My solution? I made this sign, with Kettleman's trademark red and yellow colours (mimicking the arched text of the word "BAGEL" on their outdoor sign). As an added flourish, I used the whitespace for a not-so-subtle plea for an end to apostrophe abuse:

This isn't just a piece of paper, it's a big sticker. You see, when I took the picture of the sign in the first picture, what I was really after was the hole, using the pop can for scale. From there I could tell how big a curve I needed for a sign to fit neatly in.

I've got a little device designed for cutting circles in paper (functionally equivalent to a compass with an X-Acto knife at the end), with which I scored the arced bottom edge of the sticker, and I used a straight edge and knife to score the sides.

As for delivery, again, subtlety and minimalism is the rule of the day.

Sure I could go there, tear off the taped sign and stick this thing on, but there are enough staff in the store that I'd probably get some questions. And the whole point of this exercise is to avoid directly confronting them about their bad grammar and terrible sense of signage style.

So I did what any psychology-conscious trickster would do: I brought in a newspaper, read it during my visit, and left it there. Underneath the newspaper on the counter was the sign. Odds are, I gambled, that a staff person would be the one to put the newspaper away, and would see the sign.

I told a few people about this plan, with various responses. One person was particularly incredulous that the plan would succeed, and suggested I should have just put the sticker on myself. But the next time I visited, lo and behold:

Now that's satisfying. The best part, aside from the perfect size and design, is that the plan involves the intervention of the target. That's the key to any successful practical joke. The requirement for conscious thought on the part of the mark changes things from a mere object to a message.

And try to imagine what would be going through someone's mind: somebody, somewhere, went to the trouble of making this very specific sign for this very specific purpose, and just left it here. Who would have done that? What was their motivation? On its own, it's such an innocent sign that you can't deduce any reasoning from it.

Unless they thought that some other manager had left it there, I'd like to believe that after a certain amount of head-scratching they gave up, shrugged, and thought to themselves, God thinks it's Friday.

The only kink in the plan--a very minor one--was that the offending sign had already been replaced with another paper-and-marker sign, sans erroneous mark of possession. Obviously someone had gotten the message through to them, making my little "stop abusing apostrophes" message redundant. In the interests of minimalism, I pulled that part of the sticker off, leaving just the "Recycling" sign. This left it with even less context, adding to the psychological aspect.

This isn't the first time I pulled this kind of thing. One of these days I'll tell you about the prank I pulled at Bridgehead.

Oh, and I should give a shout-out to Rob Cockerham of, who does a lot of this kind of stuff (like the McDonald's drive-thru menu prank and the TGI Friday's Menu Prank).

Also, a shout-out to Elmaks (RIP), whose swap boxes helped me realize that anything we can touch, we have the power to change.

- RG>

Friday, January 27, 2012

Whoring myself out some more

Despite being on Twitter now (as @RealGrouchy, of course), I still have very few followers, and don't really have much going on there.

I guess that's really a success, since I don't particularly care for being social.

Nevertheless, I am self-conscious--and to an extent, competitive--and having so few followers doesn't jive with my business plan:
1. Get lots of Twitter followers
2. ???
3. Profit
With so few followers on Twitter, I feel I need to do something to compensate.

So I've put a Twitter feed in the sidebar of the blog.

Watch me be a twit.

- RG>

Other things washed away by the weather

I distinctly remember posting--or at least drafting--the annual réprise of my Waterlude logo a couple of weeks ago. I remember searching Google for "Waterlude" and finding that post being the second result (strangely, now third), after a MetroOttawa article using the same Napoleon reference on the same day as my blog post.

Still, my picture-perfect "Waterlude" sendup of the "Winterlude" logo is from a year prior. (And is still the first Google Images search result for "Waterlude")

I also remember that when I drafted the post, either the canal hadn't opened yet, or it had just opened, and because of this, I was having second thoughts about the timing of such a post. But I don't remember deleting it...

My best guess is that I did post it, but that the rain and mild weather melted it away. What tragic irony.

- RG>