2012.06 minutiae

  • We can put a man on the moon, but apparently we can't make landscaping equipment quieter than the Saturn V rocket that put a man on the moon.

  • This month Elizabeth and I took a trip to eastern Canada, staying in five cities: Toronto; London, Ontario; Ottawa; Quebec City; and Montreal. The main reason I planned this trip was to do research for an upcoming project. Another reason was just for the fun of traveling. But given that there's a non-zero chance that I will end up living in Canada at least for a while, I figured I ought to scout it out a bit. I've been to Vancouver and Victoria many times, but Toronto is Canada's flagship city and I'd never been there even once. Ottawa regularly appears at or near the top of those "world's most liveable city" lists. And while I can't really imagine moving to French Canada, I'd never seen Quebec City, and Montreal is always fun to visit.

    Anyway, Toronto was pretty much a bust. The traffic is quite possibly the worst I have ever experienced, L.A. included. Here's the problem. Almost every street I saw in Toronto consisted of four lanes, two in each direction. However, cars are allowed to park along the curbs, and the right lane isn't wide enough to allow a moving vehicle to get by a parked one. And since virtually every block has at least one car parked along the curb, you can't ever really drive in the right lane. So you stay in the left lane… but you can't drive in that lane either, because someone at the intersection up ahead is trying to turn left, and can't because of oncoming traffic. So you just sit there. On the 14th I drove from Toronto to London, a trip which is supposed to take two hours. In reality, it took 53 minutes just to cover the 1½ miles of Spadina Avenue between our host's house and the Gardiner Expressway. If you're keeping score, that is less than half a typical person's walking speed.

    The above account is actually somewhat simplified. What I saw over and over in Toronto was the following scenario: say you have two cars (among many) crawling along in the left lane. They can't drive in the right lane because of the parked cars. But there usually aren't any parked cars right at the intersection — there's space left there for drivers to pull into the right lane to turn right. So the driver of the trailing car gets excited and swerves into the right lane just before the light. The light turns green. The driver in the right lane happily drives forward — only to immediately encounter another row of parked cars. So that driver now starts to change back into the left lane. That means that, in the rare case that the lead car in the left lane was not turning left and thereby holding up traffic, it instead has to stop so as not to crash into the lane-changing car, thereby holding up traffic. And while a car attempting to turn left keeps the cars behind it stuck on their original block, a car going straight will be followed by those other cars. So when the lead car hits the brakes immediately upon clearing the intersection, those other cars are stuck out there in no-man's-land. They end up trapped in the intersection when the light turns green for vehicles on the intersecting street, creating a textbook case of gridlock.

    Toronto does seem to have some mass transit — I hear there's a subway, though it wasn't extensive enough for us to end up using it (whereas in Montreal we took the metro nearly everywhere, even though driving was much easier than in Toronto). There are also streetcars, but these are hooked up to overhead wires that turn the city into an eyesore. Here's a typical Toronto streetcorner:

    Traffic wasn't the only thing that kept Toronto from coming off especially well. I did some research on places to eat, and nearly every place people recommended turned out to be a disappointment. The service we encountered at restaurants and hotels and such could charitably be described as "indifferent." Throw in how much worse it must be during the winter and I don't think I'll be adding Toronto to my list of places I'd be willing to move to without too much grumbling.

  • I am not fluent in French, but I can generally find some phrasing or another that will get across what I want to say. I can also read it passably well. What I can't do is understand people speaking French at rapid conversational speed. You know the cliché of the American tourist who thinks non-anglophones will understand him if only he speaks slowly and loudly enough? That would actually work for someone trying to speak French to me. So I was apprehensive about going to Quebec — yes, I knew that people would likely switch to English if I froze up for too long, especially in Montreal, but still, it's just unpleasant to have someone going "rat-a-tat-a-tat" at you while you have no idea what they're saying.

    Anyway, I was surprised to find that I was able to conduct every conversation during the Quebec leg of our trip entirely in French — the 40% or so that I understood was enough for me to make accurate guesses about what to say next, and my own French was apparently understandable enough that no one switched to English on me, even in Montreal. I checked into a hotel, bought gas out in the middle of nowhere, placed orders at bakeries, etc., etc., entièrement en français. Correction: all of the above is true for the conversations I had when Elizabeth wasn't around. When she was, people usually switched to English — even when she didn't speak. What was up with that? Some hypotheses:

    The most reasonable hypothesis would seem to be that people heard us talking to each other in English, and thus pegged us an anglophones before we even started talk to them. The problem with this theory is that it wasn't actually the case — often we hadn't been talking at all before initiating a conversation with the shopkeeper or whomever.

    Hypothesis two: people have told me in the past that I have a fairly impassive face. Perhaps people kept speaking to me in French, even when I wasn't catching more than a small fraction of what they were saying, because I didn't look confused. Elizabeth, on the other hand, often looks puzzled even when she isn't, so people might have reacted to her "I am translating" face as if it were an "I am totally lost" face.

    Hypothesis three: maybe people pegged her at a glance as an English rose but took me for Lebanese or something.

    One interesting twist here is that I am a bit deaf and often have to ask people to repeat things — seriously, half of my conversations with people consist of me saying, "What?" — and when Elizabeth was around people pretty much always switched to English when I did the old hand-to-ear "say that again" gesture. But when she wasn't around, and I indicated to people that I hadn't caught what they had said to me, they repeated themselves in French. Go figure.

  • We went to a bunch of museums on our trip. In Toronto, we went to the Art Gallery of Ontario (the big Picasso exhibition there didn't do much for me, though I did like eavesdropping on the guides discussing pieces with groups of kids on field trips); the Royal Ontario Museum (a grab bag of history and science); and the tiny Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. In Montreal, we went to the Musée des beaux-arts (which we initially thought was small until we discovered that we had only seen the Canadian art wing — in fact, there are several other wings and the place is huge). But the best museum we went to was the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Again, the big exhibition (Van Gogh) didn't do much for me, but we saw many very cool things once we started exploring the rest of the museum. The highlight was in the theater. Elizabeth and I had ducked in there mostly to rest our feet — the seats were comfortable couches — and at first we didn't have any idea what we were looking at. It seemed to be a compilation of random film clips from various eras. You'd have 15 seconds from a British film of the 1930s, then 30 seconds of a Robin Williams movie, then 10 seconds of old Bollywood. I looked for a uniting factor and eventually I noticed that there seemed to be a fair number of clocks in the scenes. Then I noticed that all the clocks seemed to be set to the same time. Or close to it, anyway. You'd see a clock and it'd say 4:08, then the next scene would be 4:08 as well… then 4:09, 4:09, 4:09… 4:10…

    Oh, I get it, I thought. It's advancing in real time.

    Then I realized: it's 4:10 now. This is a compilations of scenes that always show the current time in real time. Which means that this has to be a 24-hour film loop. Mind: blown.

    I read the informational plaque on the way out, and sure enough, that's exactly what it is. Apparently it took the guy three years to put together, and I'm astounded he was able to do it so quickly. Incredible. Here's the Wikipedia link: Christian Marclay, The Clock

    The regular galleries were also very rewarding — apparently abstraction was very big in Montreal in the '50s and we wandered through room after room full of nifty paintings — I particularly liked the work of Marcel Barbeau, who apparently is still alive! One floor was devoted to another guy who's still kicking around in his late 80s, Arnaud Maggs, whose stock in trade is arrays of things: here's a wall full of envelopes that contained letters notifying the recipient that a family member had died (we heard a guide explain to a group of teenagers that in France it is (or was) traditional to mark such envelopes with black lines — the thicker the line, the closer the relation). But perhaps my favorite discovery was an artist named Bharti Kher — the piece of hers that I saw was from 2011 and I can't find any images of it online, but it was a gorgeous, gigantic galaxy of little colored circles that turned out to be bindis of all things. I really wish I could find a picture for you, but here are some other works of hers that, while not quite as good as the one I saw, are along roughly the same lines:

    One more thing from Ottawa — not from the National Gallery this time, but from Parliament. As you might expect, the halls are lined with official portraits of former prime ministers. As you also might expect, most of these are pretty boring. Here's Brian Mulroney, for instance. And then, right at the end, you hit Jean Chrétien:

    Dang! How can you not like that? (Actually, when I went looking for a copy online I found a bunch of people bitching about it. But you could say that about anything.)

  • Speaking of design, though, I have been astounded to read article after article praising the Metro design that comes with Windows 8. I use Windows 7; here's a shot of my desktop:
    Now here's a screenshot from Windows 8:
    This is supposed to be an improvement? I guess I don't object to the box-based interface in and of itself — the web site for the Musée des beaux-arts is similar, and it's attractive enough:

    The difference is the selection of colors for those boxes. Who at Microsoft thought that yellow-green, dark orange, and azure made for a pleasant palette? And how can anyone with eyes possibly agree?

    Now look at the icons. Here's what I click on to get my mail compared to what Microsoft wants me to click on:

    Windows 7
    Windows 8

    Maybe that's not fair? Thunderbird isn't a Microsoft program, after all. Okay, let's compare apples to apples. Microsoft Solitaire!

    Windows 7
    Windows 8

    So basically the new style is flat, monochrome, self-consciously primitive icons. There's a name for this trend. It's called "hipster branding." How long before they bring back Clippy with an ironic mustache?

  • I've also read a lot of pieces lately about how the demise of physical media has been a nightmare for musicians, as Kids These Days all have huge libraries of MP3s that they didn't pay for. Even those who don't download illegal torrents of albums have few qualms about paying 99¢ for a song and then passing along copies to dozens of their closest friends. The result is that musicians no longer make money off recordings, and even members of successful bands find that the proceeds from touring and merchandise aren't enough to live on.

    That got me wondering why bands don't just adopt the Kickstarter model. The one time you still have control over your music is before you've recorded it in the first place. So decide on an amount you'd be willing to accept as a fair payment for your latest album — say you want $50,000 per member of a four-piece band, so $200,000. Whether it's two million fans paying ten cents each, or twenty thousand paying ten bucks, or a hundred paying two grand, or most likely some variegated combination of payments, once your pledges reach $200,000, the payments become official and you release your album for free, since it will effectively be free anyway once it goes up on Youtube. If it's a gigantic hit, maybe you can ask for $4 million next time and you'll all be millionaires.

    It seemed to me that this strategy would be unlikely to work in most fields of endeavor, but if ever there would be an exception, it would be for music. I mean, if I could somehow get hold of a fourth Nirvana studio album, I'd pay $2000 for that, no problem. I'd pay many hundreds for a new Die Mannequin album every year. But I guess it comes down to a matter of mindset. The economics class I audited last semester devoted a fair amount of time to the difference between "perfect competition," in which commodities are undifferentiated, and "monopolistic competition," in which each producer's products are unique. An example of perfect competition would be something like the wheat market — when you buy flour you don't know or care exactly what farm your wheat came from, because wheat is wheat. Whereas an example of monopolistic competition would be, well, music. Yes, there is virtually no end to the number of players in the music market — hence the "competition" — but only Nirvana can make a Nirvana record. You can't just pick up a Pearl Jam record instead and shrug that music is music.

    Or can you? I've talked about this before, but I still can't help but wonder. The young woman whose blog post kicked up this month's Internet storm said that she had an archive of 11,000 songs. That is preposterous to me. I don't think I've ever liked more than about four bands that were active at any given time. So of course I think that a new album by a band I like is a rare and precious thing. But if you have a hundred "favorite bands," and one of them says, "We're not putting out our next album until we get $200,000," do you chip in, or do you just shrug and say, "All right, I'll just listen to my other 99 favorite bands instead"? At what point are your tastes so broad that music becomes a commodity like wheat and you don't much care where it comes from? Because if "making the art that only I can make" becomes meaningless to the audience, then artists really are screwed.

  • Back in the day I was one of those people who was perplexed that the various attempts in the U.S. to launch a dollar coin kept fizzling. But every time I go to Canada I come back more convinced that dollar coins are a bad idea. Yes, they're unwieldy — they're heavy and don't fit neatly into a wallet — but of course you could say the same thing about sub-dollar coins as well. I think the real problem for me is more conceptual. If I see that something costs, say, $8.28, that divides up neatly: take $8 from the bill pocket and 28¢ from the coin pouch. To split that into $5 in bills and $3.28 in coins is just weird.

    (Of course, as I think I've mentioned before, I would also do away with the second decimal place, and kill the penny, nickel, and quarter. That charge would therefore be $8.3 and you would pay with $8 in bills plus three dimes.)

  • Sign of the times: a couple of years ago I noted that my local post office, in addition to separating mail into "local" and "out of town," had a bin reserved exclusively for Netflix shipments.

    That bin is gone now.

  • I guess that ultimately any sort of trip from the Bay Area is going to be a sort of reverse commute where vacations are concerned. I sweltered for two weeks in Canada and came home to perfect weather. I scoured the Internet for the best of what Ontario and Quebec had to offer, and with the exception of croissants at Le Paltoquet and a peach/pistachio number at Mamie Claufoutis, nothing in Canada even approached my neighborhood places here in my undistinguished corner of the East Bay: e.g., the honey curry burrito I got a few blocks away at the Hot Shop upon my return blew away every vacation dinner. This is the part where I would normally add some snark about the state of American politics, but when I was in Ottawa I went to watch the floor debate at the House of Commons, and wound up sitting through a speech by Shelly Glover crowing about how the wonders of the Tories' omnibus bill C-38, which repeals 70+ regulations against pollution so more oil pipelines can be built, slashes food inspection, ends oversight of Canada's version of the CIA, and, in Glover's words, "encourage[s] Canadians looking for work" (by cutting off their unemployment insurance). People made fun of the teabaggers who said "That's it! I'm moving to Canada!" in the wake of the Supreme Court's surprise decision to uphold health care reform, but so long as Stephen Harper has his majority (which is very likely to last through at least 2015) they might actually prefer the trend up there, if not the status quo.

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