Archive for March 2007
It’s always easier to destroy than create. This is true of culture in all its forms, starting with the purely physical. A sculptor can always chisel off a little too much stone. An editor can edit a piece of writing to the point where the meaning is lost. When you use heavy JPEG compression on a picture, you lose detail that you can never get back.
On the Internet today we have a disturbing new development; prominent bloggers are being subjected to death threats, for no apparent reason. It’s not because anything they’re saying or doing; it’s purely because of their visibility. I was honestly disturbed to read a report from Kathy Sierra, software developer and author of Creating Passionate Users, about death threats that have led her to cancel speaking engagements and stay at home. These were accompanied by images of Kathy modified to horrifying effect.
I know how easy it is to ‘shop an image in Photoshop, because I’ve done it myself, with the difference that I do it for comic effect. Now, however, it’s being done to threaten, to frighten, to terrorize. We bloggers pride ourselves on our constructive use of language, which makes it doubly upsetting to see it used in such a destructive way.
The important question is “why?”, and the answer is simply “because they can”. Too many slasher movies, too few opportunities to do something rewarding, or just boredom? I know I’m talking in the abstract here, because I’m not in Kathy’s shoes, and can’t claim to know how she feels. What I do know is that, as a creative person, she will overcome this setback, with the support of her family, friends, and her fellow bloggers.
Constructive work will always triumph over the destructive, because you always have something real to show for your efforts when the day is through. 😎
… and I ain’t got much of it. It’s Friday evening, and I’m testing my ability to write and post a full blog entry without using the keyboard at all.
To do the bulk of the writing, I’m using a program called Dasher, which lets you select characters and words by controlling a cursor. When you select a character, that affects the following selections, which seem to unfold in an organic manner. It’s context sensitive, and allows me to enter text very quickly with a minimum of practice. For editing I have an on-screen virtual keyboard, and the rest is done in Firefox.
Sounds like fun, and it’s not the first time I’ve tried this, but today it’s a little more serious. Sometime on Monday this week, my body decided to remind me that I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis just over a year ago, and to disabuse me of the notion that my neurologist might have read the MRI films incorrectly. I was at work on Tuesday, thinking I might have caught the Flu on the plane from Denver, but when I tried to sign a form, and could barely hold the pen, my situation needed a rethink.
The main symptoms are fatigue and some loss of fine motor control, which go together. I worked from home today, and did a fair amount of typing, but by the end of the day it was a struggle to lift my hands to type, and my fingers would not hit keys on demand.
It’s a good thing I’ve made a few preparations, I suppose. I belong to a virtual team at work, with the ability to get work done from remote locations, and the main obstacles to working from home on a regular basis are more procedural than technical, with regulations about ergonomics getting in the way.
So I will still have to go in to the office, but not for a few days yet. One particularly nasty MS symptom hit me on Thursday night; a massive cramp has has left me with a torn calf muscle that has me hobbling around like an extra from a low budget Dickens production. Just to add injury to insult, you know.
Now my wrist is getting sore, and I’ve done enough whining for one day. If it wasn’t for the physical problems I would be fine, actually, and I know I’ll be better in a few days. I will NOT start using txtspk, with Dasher making it easier to use good English than bad. I just need to take it easy for a bit.
Thursday: after checking out from The Curtis, I took a final five-mile walk around the northern Uptown area of Denver, via the State Capitol. Not much more than a time-wasting exercise, with my flight due to leave after 7PM. A boring bagel for lunch, then the bus, then sitting around the airport, waiting for a chance to sit on a plane for eight hours.
Denver International Airport may be in a weird location, miles from Denver itself, but it was actually quite pleasant. The main terminal has a white fabric tent for a roof, an open atrium construction and plenty of glass, with the soft lighting making everything clear. I had been warned about the single security checkpoint, but there were two checkpoints when I was there, in open areas at opposite ends of the terminal, and neither was too busy. After that, however, it was boring, with mostly restaurants, and I wasn’t hungry at all. Good thing I had the laptop, and podcasts to listen to.
My flight left 1/2 hour late, yet arrived 1/2 hour ahead of schedule, thanks to tailwinds of up to 250km/h (according to the in-flight display) and a top ground speed in excess of 1100 km/h. possibly the fastest I’ve ever flown. (Without the tailwind, that speed would have been supersonic.). No sleep, but I did get to see 2-1/2 movies in the limited flight time; The Devil Wears Prada, half of The Incredibles.
The main movie was The Departed. Wow: the Boston Irish mob was portrayed in lurid detail, complete with the kind of “Irish Rock” music I detest; the violence was sparse but frankly shocking, and even more abrupt than in previous Scorsese films I’ve seen. Had I blinked at a crucial point I would have missed the death of a main character, and perhaps I wish I had; one second he is flushed with success, chattering excitedly; the next second he is a leaking bag of bones on a concrete floor. To a non-religious viewer, The Departed was a gripping vision of a Hell I hope I never visit, one that puts the kibosh on any romantic notions you might have of the Irish. (I have few of those left; whenever I hear an Irish person take credit for anything good in America, such as the Kennedy clan, I need just two words to shut them up: Tammany Hall.)
Heathrow airport was confusing and infuriating. I thought I knew it, but changes since my last visit mean that transferring there was inconsistent. Everything seemed normal on the way to Denver, but on the return the Flight Connections route, to Terminals 1, 2 & 3, took everyone through a single small area for security screening. There was a 20-minute queue to get in to the area, then another 20-minute wait to be screened. Some frantic passengers jumped the queue to try to make their flights; everyone else understood. I was fine, no problems with security or time, but I was still chafing at the delays and the rudeness of the staff. The much-maligned Transportation Security Administration in the USA were positively friendly by comparison.
Puzzlingly, the Friday flight to Dublin was completely full, with disappointed people on standby, and requests from the staff to give them large bags to put in the hold, which I acceded to for the first time on this trip. Why the crush? My pre-flight planning missed an important Irish occasion: St. Patrick’s Day weekend. The Dublin airport baggage conveyors were overflowing, Arrivals was Bedlam, and the bus back to Ballsbridge was slow in arriving, then packed to the rafters. Five girls from the Midlands of England were competing to see who was the most annoying, the winner being one from Derby, as she proclaimed to all and sundry.
That was the trip that was: I managed to go shopping, and stay up till 10PM, then crashed till noon on Saturday, and woke up with my brain, on the table next to me, asking “who are you?” Well, if it avoids jet lag, a lazy weekend price worth paying. It’s back to work on Monday, where I expect to bust a blood vessel or two before breakfast.
On Wednesday I noticed that I was sunburned; this was only after another long walk that topped up Tuesday’s UV exposure to overflowing, and had the hotel receptionist laughing at me. I followed the Cherry Creek path most of the way, which runs alongside Speer Boulevard to the south east. The creek (but not the path) runs through the exclusive Denver Country Club, where I imagined Dynasty’s Blake Carrington with a 9-iron in mid-swing… how eighties is that?
Then the Cherry Creek Mall, mostly posh fashion emporia, and a food court where a Japanese-owned Greek fast food outlet sold me a Gyros. It sounded glamorous until I realized that it was just another name for a Souvlaki, a Shawarma, or a Doner Kebab; pressed meat, broiled on a rotisserie, shaved in to pita bread, with salad and dressings. I came 5,000 miles for this? Still, it was nice enough, and gave me a chance to read the Denver Post I had been schlepping around all morning.
The walk down Colorado Boulevard took my day’s shoe wear up to about seven miles, most of it in thin air and bright sunshine. I had sunscreen on, but not enough, it seems. On the way back to the hotel I stopped by the Pepsi Center, wondering whether there were any seats for the hockey game. The scene was familiar to me from rock concerts; many scalpers outside, with signs and shouts of “any tickets?”, while people walk past them to the box office, to buy tickets at face value. Expensive, but $66 got me a center balcony seat, and I headed back there after an hour at the hotel, writing the previous post.
The game was fun: the draft Coors was actually pretty good, not expensive by Irish standards, and the place was nearly full for one of the NHL season highlights; the Calgary Flames visiting the Colorado Avalanche. The ESPN summary of the game can be found here. My seat gave me a good view of the whole of the ice, except for the head in front of me during the first period. It got cold, as expected, which suited my red neck just fine.
The first surprise for me was the absence of any show of impartiality by the hosts; each Colorado team member was given the star treatment, with a video introduction, while Calgary came on unannounced. Between shots the announcer revved up the partisan crowd, helped by big-screen slogans and chants.
The game wasn’t hard to follow, though it took me a little while to figure out what a Power Play was: a penalized player in the “sin bin” for two minutes, giving the other team an advantage. Power Plays gave Calgary a 2-1 lead in the first period, but the Avs regrouped, scoring a goal in the second, and a third goal at the start of the third period, leaving the fans happy with a 3-2 home win. There was even a fight on the ice, cheered on by the 14,000-strong crowd.
Each 20-minute period took over 40-minutes to play, and was followed by an intermission meaning that each period started on the hour. Family-friendly, there were plenty of kids around, and not just in the audience; two junior teams took to the ice in the intermissions, first for standard play, then a shoot-off. Plenty of audience participation, with WW2 veterans taking a bow, remote-controlled balloons dropping coupons for food and newspapers, dance contests for the arena camera, and free t-shirts flying around, though I was too far up in the nosebleed section to partake in any of the bounty.
I was back in downtown Denver well before 11PM, looking for supper on 16th Street, yet nearly everything was closed, except for a McDonalds – no thanks – and a Taco Bell, which sold me a boring burrito. I know it was a weekday night, but the street was hardly deserted, after a big hockey game.
In general, I was very disappointed with nearly all the food I had in the USA. Quality was always overruled by quantity; sandwiches have plenty of meat with little flavour of its own; chicken didn’t taste like anything, not even chicken. If I lived there I would be doing a lot more cooking of my own, I suspect, once I figured out where to get the ingredients. I don’t know if I would gain weight, from becoming acclimatised to the blandness, or lose weight in reaction to chronic culinary disappointment. As for the coffee; Starbucks was the best, which is really not saying much at all, at the prices they charge.
The last few days of my trip Denver followed my standard new city vacation profile, in general: use the public transport system, such as it is, and my feet for the rest.
Tuesday it was South Denver; after taking the Light Rail as far as it went, to the Lincoln station, I checked out the immediate area. Between huge housing developments there are huge empty fields; I stood in the middle of one, took in the view of the Rockies, resisted the temptation to pick up a handful of dry red soil and take a sniff, then returned to the station to catch a bus. (I was late, but so was the bus.)
The driver, a little Mexican guy in sunglasses, had a radio on: like every other time I heard the radio in Colorado, it was playing almost all British pop music, hardly anything American at all. The bus took us through Sky Ridge, where I found myself whistling Little Boxes, then stopped when I noticed just how huge these little boxes were. Some were as big as the 3-floor 15-apartment building I’m writing this from. I got off at the Highlands Ranch center – out of curiosity at the name – in time for lunch, so I had to try a Fatburger. Definitely the best fast food I had on my trip, and surprisingly healthy, with the amount of salad they had on top. Not much else around there except yet another Barnes & Noble, so I hit the road.
This was a mistake: it was getting hot, I had no sunscreen on, and I had underestimated the distance to the Lyttleton / Mineral station on the not-to-scale map. Two miles later the road took a sharp left, and I could see it carried on for at least two miles further, with nothing at the end. I know my limitations, so I waited for the bus in the shade of a road sign. Some strange looks from passing cars and Harleys, but no-one said a word to me. It eventually arrived, the same bus with the same driver as earlier, who failed to give me a strange look. Oh well; we got to the station about four miles down the road, where I caught the Light Rail back to downtown Denver.
After hitting Walgreens for some supplies, it was a night off, with free internet access and a hot bath, listening to the latest podcast of NPR’s Wait… Wait… Don’t Tell Me. I’d asked the hotel for a bathtub, and got one, but ended up wishing I hadn’t; it was short, and there was no headroom before the wall behind it, so I couldn’t lay back all the way. There was also a large shiny knob, controlling the plug, that gave me the kind of view of myself that I hope I never have again. Then I took my glasses off, so all I could see in the reflection was a blur of colour; a closer look at my face showed me the colour I would be for the next few days.
A strange sight from Fort Collins, Colorado, on my walk last Saturday. I didn’t go inside the “Bible Superstore”, out of respect… who am I kidding? I didn’t go in because I knew I’d be at risk of falling down laughing, and making a fool of myself. How could there be such a thing as a Bible Superstore? I can just imagine the layout:
- Aisle 1: Bibles
- Aisle 2: Bibles
- Aisle 7: Bibles
- Aisle 8: Bibles
- Aisle 9: Bible Study
- Aisle 10: School Books (Intelligent Design)
On Sunday I moved to Denver from Fort Collins, and on Monday I took a flying visit to Colorado Springs by Greyhound Bus. From the bus station I grabbed a cab to my company’s offices; the cabbie looked like Jerry Garcia, and we got talking about Colorado Springs, since it was my first time there. When I asked about Springs’ reputation as a very Christian town, with churches visible everywhere, it was like setting a fire under him. He was what you can call a pantheist, meaning he had a general belief in a “universal power”, but he’d given up on organized religion many years before that. The recent scandals in the town, involving Ted Haggard of the 14,000-strong New Life Church, had made world headlines (such as CNN), and to the cabbie this was just the latest confirmation of his opinion that organized religion is morally bankrupt.
I spent the day with my North American counterparts and their manager, who are about the only people left in a cavernous office floor. Cubicle after cubicle of beige and brown, desks gathering dust, chairs upended, the carpet in the aisles grubby and faded. It was a beautiful day outside, so we all walked down the hill to a barbecue joint, where I had another huge but tasteless sandwich. (If the bread, meat and cheese have no taste, no volume of condiments can make a great sandwich!)
My presence seemed to bring out the worst in my colleagues, in a good way – if that makes any sense. They had a new face to pour out their troubles to, all the while keeping up a brave sense of humour that would not be out of place in a Dilbert cartoon. I got even more of the same from their manager, who took me back in to central Colorado Springs and joined me for dinner and a beer. (I had a nicely microbrewed oatmeal stout and a huge “Chicken Gringo” concoction, with cornbread and potato wedges, that I couldn’t finish.)
As I Twittered in from the bus station, on the way back to Denver: it was one of those days that confirms your suspicions and fears. My US colleagues feel just as threatened as we in Europe do, and as isolated and frozen out of the “career path” in my company. For most of the day I was just someone to talk to, a role I’m happy to play if it helps, and this time I’m sure it did. The manager treated me as an equal, and clearly needed someone to help him make some sense of what is going on.
My qualms about the my employer’s plans seem to be well-justified. I am not going mad, and neither are those colleagues of mine with similar concerns. I can’t really say any more, but what I can say is that there are changes coming my way this year. I’ve learned things I might not be supposed to know, but the effect will be to give me more time to prepare.
The last couple of days in Denver were a mix of gonzo walks and lazing around in my nice hotel room. I will say some more later, but right now I have an ice hockey game to go to, so I need to get my skates on.
Back at the Fort Collins hotel, my room is one of the “accessible” ones, meaning there are handrails in the bathroom and plenty of floor space to wheel a chair around. Not the biggest I’ve ever had – that harks back to the 2-bedroom condo I had to myself in Bangalore – but pretty big, and with free broadband internet access.
The week is over, and so is the work, even the breakfast meeting in the morning is just social. More work on Monday, in Colorado Springs, but until then I have a weekend to look forward to, and to kick it off, have some chillout music courtesy of YouTube and one of my favourite musicians: Michael Manring’s live performance of his solo composition The Enormous Room.
A little explanation for those interested: the instrument Michael is playing is the Zon Hyperbass, an electric bass with some unusual features. It has retuning levers on each string – four on the headstock and two on the bridge – which Michael is activating at times to give that “pedal steel” effect. For that to work well the strings have to be light; for that to sound good and offer stable tuning, the bass is made with an extremely rigid carbon fibre neck. Not cheap, as you might imagine, but extremely effective in the right hands – as the video amply demonstrates.