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 Cockeyed.com, 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>