Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Dream: The Usual Chase and The Ropy Arms

I am an intern at a scientific institute during the 1950s. I am up late studying in one of the rooms when "Kathleen," a senior researcher, enters with her bewildered assistant. Kathleen explains to the assistant that she's developed a formula which gives a person enormous strength. She says that it turns a person's grip into unbreakable iron, but the side-effect is that you become a murderous, sociopathic thrill-seeker.

Kathleen is aware that I'm hiding in the room behind one of the partitions so she grabs her assistant and they stumble around looking for me. Since she can't catch me without letting go of her prey -- and she prefers to be watched -- she drinks the formula and then chokes the assistant to death. I only see Kathleen's silhouette except for her arm, which is thick and pale, marbled with veins. It looks like a ropy albino tree.

Escaping the institute I'm sniffed out and followed by "'Ymann," the head scientist, who has also drunk the potion. 'Ymann says it will be fun to hunt OUTSIDE the building for a change. We go on a slow "hide and seek" around the neighbourhood and eventually I wind up meeting "Rutherford," a high school friend, and begging him to take me away in his enormous 1950s car. We temporarily escape, but eventually 'Ymann kills Rutherford with his ropy, pale arm. I'm ashamed for leaving Rutherford behind but I remember hearing that the grip was unbreakable, like a pit-bull's hold. I tell myself that I couldn't have helped Rutherford.

The chase ends in a convention center. 'Ymann has become abnormally tall and he's very fast, but I'm able to get onto a lower part of the main floor, and I know that he can't jump down to my level without being crushed under his weight. As I'm escaping through the foyer, running past reclining businessmen who are reading the morning newspaper, 'Ymann speaks through a public address system that he's hijacked from a switchboard operator. He says that the scientific institute will no longer hold conferences at the convention center due to the center's tolerance and promotion of "alternative lifestyles." This is meant to be a revenge against me, which seems foolish and impotent.

I see a newspaper report about 'Ymann's eventual death; he suffered from "rickets" due to his ever-increasing height and he died in a hospital.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Vaudeville

I'm not much of an Abbott & Costello fan but they probably didn't write this joke anyway:
Costello: I've been experimenting with shortwaves!

Abbott: When did you start experimenting with shortwaves?

Costello: Ever since I got slapped by a tall WAC!
It's a joke so clean you could tell your grandparents! And for those people who AREN'T grandparents, here's some context: a WAVE, a WAC, and for additional bonus points, a WREN.

PS: Overheard on the March 7, 1946 edition of the "Abbott and Costello Show."

"Ala Russe"

Paris Delights Herself with Gorgeous New Russian Shades of Rouge. KRASNY.

A Vogue inspired by the make-up of the Imperial Exiles of the court of Russia

When the Czar and his brilliant court and all the magnificent aristocracy of Russia went down to ruin in the Revolution, those who escaped death became exiles, homeless wanderers on the face of the earth.

Paris took them in--Paris with her flair for novelty and romance, was thrilled to welcome these magnificent women of a vanished dream--with their grand style, their infinite allure, above all their gorgeous color. Over night they were a new vogue!

Color is the Russian note--marvelously struck in the make-up of these splendid infinitely chic mondaines! Like the American women, they have vivid personality, they are not afraid of glowing, heart-arresting effects. Paris, seeing their beautiful and thrilling art of make-up, has responded as Paris always responds--she has made it her own! Krasny!
The New Yorker, May 19, 1927

As always these advertisements for Krasny rouge totally confuse me. Turning traumatic exile into a line of cosmetics seems crass, but I suppose enough time had passed to add a tinge of romance to the exodus, and people probably didn't care much about what the Russians got up to anyway. In 1927 the Soviets were too busy liquidating opposition to even bother with the "world revolution," the only thing bound to make upper-crust New Yorkers sit up and pay attention. All they knew about Paris emigres was what they saw between drinking-binges in the American-style cafes...in other words, nothing. Except maybe the odd translated poem.

I also wonder when the Czar's retinue became "brilliant" and "magnificent," as opposed to inbred, out-of-touch, and selfish? Or maybe this describes the upper-crust readers of The New Yorker as well? It's certainly true that liberal society tended to side more with the revolutionaries than with their rouge-y overseers, but The New Yorker certainly had an aloof, hedonistic snobbiness -- at least from 1925-1927 -- so maybe the readers sympatised more with the aristocrats at the time.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

UPhold Update: Our Past Present (Now Then)

The split, double CD3 "Our Past Present (Now Then)" has just been released by AFE Records. The first CD is the full length version of "Unreleased Work Tapes 7/7/04" by The Infant Cycle, and the second CD contains four tracks by yours truly, one of which ("Bedwetters") was previously released on the "Bright Blue Jungle" CD (AFE really liked the song and wanted to use it).

It usually takes me months to stop being sick of songs once I've finished with them, but the "Delia" and "Dmitri" songs on "Our Past Present" make me very happy, and I think they signify a new direction for UPhold.

They might make you happy too!

The CDs can be ordered directly through AFE Records, and I've got some copies that I'm still figuring out what to do with.

Performing "They Don't Know" at Guelph's "Drag Race" Event

As I continue to pursue the St. Bernard Internet Footprint I keep finding bizarre things about myself that I never knew existed. Here's a sneaky video clip of me performing Tracy Ullmann's "They Don't Know" at a show a few months ago in Guelph (which I think was called "The Drag Race").


When I first started doing drag shows, Miss Drew said it would be a good idea to watch videos of myself, and since this clip was filmed (and posted) without my knowledge it's an even better "critical study" for me than it would be otherwise.

My first comment is "jeez, I have rocket-powered hands," thanks partly to long-ago advice from Morgan James ("When in doubt, raise your arms!") But the frantic hands have more to do with the fact that I don't know what to do with my FEET. I'm not much into audience interaction so I prefer to stay on the stage, but I can't just stand in one spot...that worked for '40s torch singers but they actually SANG.

It's hard, in a song, to avoid International Drag Sign Language (love, you, they, etc.) so you either have to be innovative or deliberately silly.

Which leads me to another good piece of advice, this one from Rasha, who told me early on to drop any pretence of being serious and "just be silly." Since there are only a few other established drag personas available -- experimental, glamorous, sexy, jaded, impersonator, and dancey-pants -- "silly" is the only one I'm really comfortable with.

Regarding this song: I started doing it during the lead up to the same-sex marriage vote here in Canada, so I dedicated it (in my head at least) to Stephen Harper, and to all the people who know more about "hate" and "fear" than they do about "love." This clip's for you!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Jane Siberry, "One More Colour"

Sure we all made fun of her at the time, but even as Jane Siberry cuts the ties with her new wave '80s past (going so far, apparently, as to give away most of her possessions and change her name to "Issa"), Siberry's beautiful "popular" songs are well worth reevaluating now.

I can't find a video for "Ingrid and the Footman," but here's a close second-best, "One More Colour." It was Siberry's really big break into mass consciousness, and I think the song and video distill that elusive "Canadianness," that is, a sort of laid-back, half playful earnestness. The shyness of an uncertain poet who really wants to be liked. Fortunately this is the version of the video without all the dated computer effects; I think this was the original one, created before the song became a hit.

I love Jane Siberry up to a point; after 1989's "Bound by the Beauty" I find her music either uninspired or poorly produced (I'm talking to YOU, Mr. Brian Eno). And she'll never beat the closing lines of this particular song, which make me smile AND give me goosebumps all at the same time:
the goatless ledge
'neath the honkless geese
in the speckless sky
the speckless sky

i hear you...

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Periodic Kingdom

The science classes I took in school never got much beyond the ones called simply "science." I did take a biology course, but the only reason I passed it was because I sat next to the girl who the teacher had a non-sexual crush on.

I suffer from a difficulty that a lot of people probably suffer from: I can't just MEMORIZE a fact, I need to know how the fact WORKS. This caused problems in highschool science, where they want to just teach you about "refraction" without explaining what light is, how visual perception works, and the exact atomic structure of the material the light is bouncing off of.

For the last ten years I've been catching up, learning (and UNDERSTANDING) all those things that previously only registered long enough for me to write the exams. And while I know I'll NEVER understand the math behind atomic-level physics, I'm finding that if I approach it in enough different ways -- and take lots of rests between each information binge -- I can begin to know what's going on.

This latest binge was inspired by Simon Singh's "The Big Bang" which -- besides reinforcing my understanding of general and special relativity -- reawakened my desire to understand SOMETHING about chemistry. Without understanding WHY the periodic table is laid out in such a quirky way, I can't begin to absorb the information IN the table.

Fortunately, this prompted me to go back and re-read "The Periodic Kingdom" by P. W. Atkins. The book presents the periodic table as though it were a physical landmass. The reader "walks" through the kingdom, discovering similarities between adjacent regions (what happens if you pour water on cesium?) and differences between the sections of the land -- atomic weight and density, ionization energies, radioactivity, etc.

Under the guise of describing the kingdom's "government and institutions," Atkins eases you into what the elements are MADE of, how their electrons form into different types of "shells," and -- ultimately -- why the periodic table IS laid out in such a quirky way.

This second time around I'm finding myself understanding it all COMPLETELY. I've had an actual epiphany. This is the first time I've gotten a "feel" for chemical elements, which is a pretty significant thing for me; it means I can hopefully take it further with "The God Particle" (Leon Lederman) and "Hydrogen" (John S. Rigden), which I just picked up on my way home.

What's my point? I have two: if you don't understand a concept and you really WANT to, try reading two (or preferably three) books about the subject...by walking repeatedly on the same ground -- but from different directions -- you can get a much fuller understanding of things than you would if you just memorized the facts. Secondly, if you really want to get a starter in chemistry, pick up "The Periodic Kingdom." I guarantee it will get you started.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Wumpus 2000 Blip

Many of the little projects I work on end up disappearing without a trace. They're sort of like elaborate paper boats that I spend years playing with, and then I launch them down the stream, and that's it. The only person who cares about the boat ends up being me.

I get particularly gratified when somebody finds one of my boat projects to be useful. This doesn't happen often...but it DID happen this month.

Someday I'll write a series of posts about the web stats for my site, but for now I'll say that I noticed a huge uptick in downloads of my Wumpus 2000 game. I finished the game in 2004 and released it to the world, but other than a few baffled comments and a sort of ambiguous review in SPAG #41, the game disappeared without a trace. The only people liable to notice it -- fans of Interactive Fiction -- were bound to be turned off by its compulsive, repetative, largely plotless nature. Wumpus 2000 was an unapologetic "cave crawl," and cave crawls aren't considered the cream of the IF-crop...especially not the sort that I made.

But now, three years later, Wumpus 2000 has made an online blip. Somehow Anna at Dessgeega Blog picked up the game and wrote a complimentary review about it, and I think she summed up its potential appeal:
wumpus 2000 - too vast and random for memorization - asks the player to devote that bit of attention and labor - in this age of flash games designed to be played and forgotten during a lunch break - and to reclaim the rewards of mapping a virtual world by hand: the written record of a game and the ownership of an experience.
As somebody who loves MAPPING games even more than I enjoy PLAYING them, I can't help but agree. I was particularly thrilled to see a smidgeon of a Wumpus 2000 map drawn IN SOMEBODY ELSE'S HANDWRITING! Not to mention the subsequent comments from people who have actually played (and even finished) the game.

Simonc over at GameSetWatch picked up on the Dessgeega post and actually said:
[Wumpus 2000] I suspect is the kind of experimental text adventure which can influence wider game design concepts from its odd niche.
I LOVE my odd niches! And apparently Wumpus 2000 is "old skool," like, even older skool than its two close companions -- Roguelikes and IF -- because of the complex, randomly-generated map and total lack of graphics or cardinal directions.

Picking up from the Dessgeega and GameSetWatch posts, Maggie Green of Kotaku wrote "Back to the (Hand Drawn) Future? (With Wumpus 2000)," and this post got splashed all over the place on RSS feeds. She expressed what the average player probably thought: "Cartography not being my thing, I can only envision hours of frustrating game play." Somewhere around there, Vash posted an ENTIRE transcript of a Wumpus 2000 game (click here and type "prev" if you're feeling brave), and it looks like he found the game almost as annoying as I find his blog navigation system.

So here's hoping that Wumpus 2000 DOES find its niche. I don't have hopes for a new genre of W2K clones, but I suppose stranger things have happened! I mean jeez, people still collect ASCII sigs, for goodness sake.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Eeko and Iko

Considering the revived (and generally posthumous) fame that sideshow freaks achieved during the grungy Jim Rose '90s, it's surprising to run across a pair of freaks that do NOT seem to be mentioned (let alone meticulously studied) on the internet.

But in the November 5, 1927 issue of The New Yorker there are a few paragraphs about the mysterious Eeko and Iko:
Even out of season, circus freaks are a major interest with us, none more so than Eeko and Iko... The two strange twins have been billed as "ambassadors from Mars..."

We have been acquainted with the pair for several seasons, and they were good examples of contented freaks... It had been their happy fate always to wear full evening dress with a brilliant red ribbon across their shirt fronts. This alone would have sufficiently amused and contented them.

With Eeko and Iko their unusual flaxen hair was their principal distinction. It looked like cotton and grew in conical clumps. They were said to shed it from time to time, as a chicken moults. Scientists pronounced them subnormal; their reflexes were slack, and they dithered as they walked. Their eyes didn't quite focus. They appeared to be Albino negroes, although it was intimated that they were picked up on the slopes of Mount Everest, or thereabouts.
Mount Everest? Shed their hair? Yeah right. Still, I'm fascinated by the strange spot that freaks held in society during the first half of the 20th century: respected and in some ways admired as long as they stayed in their tents.

By the way, I've never heard the word "dither" used in this way. I'm familiar with it meaning a sort of indecisive wandering, and apparently it can also be a sort of shiver/shake action. Did Eeko and Iko shiver as they walked?

Update
The early morning time-crunch and a misspelled "Eko" in The New Yorker kept me from finding what Morgan James discovered today: "Eko and Iko" are by no means forgotten. The Human Marvels can tell you everything you need to know about "The Sheep-Headed Men."

Curiously, their career was temporarily ended when their long-lost mother finally tracked them down. This article in The New Yorker was prompted by that very incident (which is why they keep being referred to in the past tense). So while Eko and Iko may not be the mysteries I thought they were, this article at least is commenting on a significant moment in their careers.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Best of "Person to Person"

I'm working my way through "The Best of Person to Person," a 3 DVD set of highlights from Edward R. Murrow's 1950s interview program. I've always admired Murrow, but this is the first time I've actually SEEN him in action. His ability to overcome technical difficulties, put his guests at ease, and keep an interview going is amazing.

I can't believe that they managed to pull this off given the technology of the day; it would be difficult even now. CBS would set up multiple cameras -- not to mention lights, sound equipment, and satellite transmission equipment -- in the homes of the interviewees, many of them in Hollywood, and Murrow would interview them live from New York City.

Watching these people casually walk throughout their homes, from camera to camera, appearing to have a relaxed conversation with a man thousands of miles away, is a surreal experience for the media-savvy viewer. They really go out of their way to make it all seem effortless and natural, often saying things like "let's see if they're home" and "come on into the kitchen." They routinely haul the kids out of bed and make them "say hi to Mr. Murrow."

Only when things go wrong -- or when Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh have to take a detour through their back yard to avoid all the stuff in their hallway -- do you realize that Murrow's physical BODY isn't really visiting them...and neither is yours. The illusion is also slightly broken by the poor quality of the transmission and the slightly out-of-control setup; the men don't suffer much, but those glamorous Hollywood starlets look much shabbier than usual.

Some interviews are more interesting than others. Danny Thomas and his family come across as insufferable fakers; it's obvious that everybody has been "coached" to death and Thomas' maudlin sincerity is disgusting. Billy Graham and Robert Kennedy are quite warm, and Eleanor Roosevelt gives the impression of a vibrant, intelligent matriarch. Norman Rockwell is as nerdy and boring as you'd imagine him to be.

It's fun to watch husbands and wives interact with each other. Ben Gage and Esther Williams spar with barely-submerged duelling egos, while Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh seem like slightly hyperactive, off-balance rodents (get a load of Curtis replaying his Brooklyn-ized Shakespeare renditions off his hi-fi). Gary Merrill and Bette Davis are pretty convincing on the surface but are very definitely "acting" the role of settled-down Maine "Yankees" (Davis shows off her lazy susan, then makes offhand mention that you can fly out of Maine at breakfast and arrive in Los Angeles in time for dinner!). Humphrey Bogart seems sincere, but Lauren Bacall -- creepy eyes almost without pupil in the poor-quality reception -- acts a bit squirrelly.

In terms of being "stiff," John F. Kennedy, Marlon Brando, and Gene Kelly take the cake. Sophia Lauren has a fascinating, sophisticated exterior that seems to float gently over a vapid soul (though this may have been a language issue).

So far the award for "most uncomfortable interview" goes to the hellish farmhouse trio of Marilyn Monroe, Milton Greene, and Amy Greene. Milton refuses to look at the camera and sullenly schlumps around the house, while Amy comes across as bossy and trashy (suddenly interrupting a question with a demand that they all sit someplace more comfortable). After five hours of makeup, Monroe looks unnatural-alien in the farmhouse kitchen, and not even Murrow can get more than a sentence or two out of her. And she sounds like a six-year-old who grew up in a fairy story. I've never made up my mind about her mental abilities, but in this interview she comes across as barely capable.

But that's nothing! I have yet to watch what I assume are the most terrifying interviews of all: Milton Berle, Carol Channing, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr., and...brrrrrr! LIBERACE!

More Modesty!


I stumbled upon Modesty Blaise through the back door: the 1966 film starring Monica Vitti. Not being familiar with Peter O'Donnell's "Modesty Blaise" newspaper strips or novels, I took the movie at its purely silly face value. And I loved it.

It turns out that Monica Vitti's character bears next to no resemblance to the REAL Blaise. Titan is reprinting the entire 39 year run of the daily strip in brand new, super high quality books, and I bought the first volume just to make a comparison. Now, three volumes in, I'm hopelessly hooked on the original non-campy-but-still-so-mod Modesty Blaise.

I'm not a fan of spy/action/thriller storylines, but O'Donnell gets me every time. Besides the solid characterization of Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin -- a truly believable male/female duo who compensate for each other's weaknesses -- the villains are also fully-fleshed and beautifully quirky; Gabriel's nerd-sociopathy, Uncle Happy's baby-talk, Mister Sun's sadistic drive to force Blaise into compromising her rigid morals. On top of all that, artist Jim Holdaway's style is stark and real...but many of his characters have a comically grotesque appearance.

In short, the Modesty Blaise strips are expert storytelling, endless creativity, and every panel is a surprisingly beautiful and complex piece of art.

It's also interesting to see how O'Donnell structured the stories to meet the unique demands of a daily newspaper strip: three panels each, always ending with a significant piece of dialog; every strip self-contained but still fitting into a plot arc; subtle moments for rehashing the story for readers who missed a week or two. It does feel a bit weird to read them one after the other, but it still works...and they're the BEST "just before bed" material.

So cheers to Modesty: a realistic kick-butt professional heroine. And cheers to the Monica Vitti version as well, incidentally.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Big City Muffy in Minneapolis (May 18)

This entry is for Friday! To view the previous five days, see May 13th, May 14th, May 15th, May 16th, and May 17th.

I warn you...this was a long and busy day!

My big fear about this trip was that I'd get so intimidated by the environment that I'd huddle away in my hotel room, reading books and watching TV, fearful of going outside and actually EXPERIENCING things. Fortunately that wasn't happening, and Friday especially was scheduled as a "do stuff day."

Breakfast at Hell's Kitchen again, but this time I tagged along with Joshua and Cindi. It turns out that Cindi actually has a well-worn list of funny things about Canadians, one of which was simply the word "hoser." I'd like to point out that the legacy of Bob and Doug MacKenzie got more mileage in the USA than it ever did in Canada, as evidenced by this band poster that I snapped later on in the day.

Other than the "pop vs. soda" and "pencil crayon vs. coloured pencils" thing, we also went over the well-travelled "about / ahbaht / awboot" territory. During this trip I finally got REAL opinions about what my "about" SOUNDS like: "sort of British," apparently, which is good because I'd thought I sounded either silly or like a bumpkin.

Joshua and Cindi had a playful debate about the role of St. Paul in all this. Cindi described Minneapolis as the good-time girl that never sleeps and St. Paul as the stoic career woman you end up marrying. Joshua didn't object to this but he stuck up for poor St. Paul, partly because he lived there.

South, south, south I travelled. I wanted to find the "cool shopping street" that Jamie and "Cleo" had pointed out to me the day before. Determined to explore, I took a new route to Uptown and got gradually more lost. I couldn't find the street they'd recommended, and I REALLY couldn't find Vera's Cafe again. I had broken all the rules and done what I'd been told NOT to do: I'd gone past K-Mart. Twice.

Walking along, looking in shop windows, I grew more and more aware of the "gun ban" signs. Tim had first pointed them out to me in downtown Minneapolis, but none of us had gotten around to actually asking anybody about them. You shouldn't trust anything a native says anyway, because they sometimes make sport of tourists by telling them -- for instance -- that all the stores are legally required to close when the temperature hits 20 degrees. The Lone Writer from Salt Lake City believed this story and told us all about it on Tuesday night. He'll never be allowed to forget it.

Anyway, The Mind Wobbles DID ask a concierge about those signs, and he said that such businesses were opting out of Minneapolis' concealed weapons laws. Did he offer any insight into the famous "20 degree" prohibition? We'll never know.

A schoolteacher carrying a potted plant finally directed me to Vera's Cafe, where I realized that I was sweaty and sunburned. Minneapolis had been sunny and hot almost the entire week, and even though I'd been changing my socks regularly...well, I only had one pair of shoes, and let's just say I didn't want anybody to get too close to my feet. I could feel a puffy burning in my face and that strange lethargy that comes from too much sun.

So I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where I'd still need to walk (a lot) but at least I'd get out of the sun...and it was free! Their statue of A Lady Who Stands on Wolves Before Slaying Them seemed a bit barbaric, though.

I'm not much of a museum-goer, I guess because I'm not a very visual person. I am awed by the STORIES behind artifacts but I'm rarely impressed simply by LOOKING at them.

But maybe I just hadn't spent enough time trying? I tested this hypothesis by walking -- gently, deliberately, slowly -- through random exhibits on the first floor. I enjoyed their collection of 19th century pencil crayon sketches by Native Americans, depicting historical battles in a traditional style. The fabrics left me flat. I was impressed by the breasts and hips of the Hindu goddess. I saw no mummified cats.

Their exhibition of Minnesota artists was interesting and I wish I'd taken a program...one room was devoted to selections by a "painting-a-day" artist who had a scrambled-eggs sort of style and a good sense of humour.

I was also able to get some context out of the pop artists. The psychedelic posters made me a little bit queasy, but for whatever reason the name "Country Joe and the Fish" has always annoyed me on a basic, primal level.

I was most impressed with Ruth Orkin's "American Girl in Italy." I find out now that it was part of a series called "Don't Be Afraid to Travel Alone." Significant indeed.

With swollen feet I returned to the hotel to prepare for another complicated night out!

10:30 pm - "Ground Zero." I deliberately extended my stay until Friday so I'd have a chance to see Ground Zero, which seemed to be right up my alley. I crossed the Mississippi for the first time and entered the bar, looking forward to dancing to SOME kind of music that I liked.

The bartender wasn't friendly. The small groups of people weren't friendly either, gathered in little pockets and looking furtively around. The music was dull and repetative...not even Fellini's "Satyricon" showing on the big screen could save the atmosphere. I decided to make a request, so I walked over to the stairway that lead to the DJ booth...only to see that the stairway was ROPED OFF. A little pad of paper was there for writing down requests. Well, screw that...if the DJ can't even be SPOKEN to, I'm gone.

Fortunately I'd run into Paul, who also wasn't having any fun. He assured me that "The Saloon" was the place to go. As anxious as I was to avoid ANY place called "The Saloon" I agreed that Paul knew more about it than I did, and I made him the designated leader of our little expedition.

But there was a problem: Paul had a bicycle with him. After wandering away from Ground Zero and waiting for a bus that never came, Paul pointed me to a cab and rode away, promising to meet me at The Saloon. When the cab drove right past me and left me on a deserted street all by myself, I got a little nervous.

Along came "Zippy" (for lack of a better name). He also had a bicycle, and looked exactly like Paul Bartel, except for the tiny shirt that couldn't stretch over his hairy belly. He wasn't wearing shoes. "A boy's just been raped and I think we should help him," he said. He couldn't pinpoint exactly HOW he knew the boy had been raped, except that he saw a kind of "look" on the boy's face.

I explained to Zippy that I'd be happy to help out if something definite was going on, but after the craziness of Wednesday night I was a bit wary about going on a wild goose chase based solely on somebody's unqualified hunch. I said I wanted to go to The Saloon, and Zippy said he'd show me a good place to get a cab.

So we started walking. It became obvious that Zippy was a little slow in the head. We passed the suspected rape victim on our way -- just a teenager sitting on a bench and waiting for a bus, as far as I could tell -- and before long we were crossing the Mississippi on a long, terrifying bridge with a tremendous wind blowing us around.

I was getting a little fed up with Zippy but I DID want a picture of myself on the bridge, so I asked him to immortalize the moment for me. I had that look on my face because Zippy had trouble figuring out my camera, and the wind was getting awfully scary, and my sunburn was starting to hurt.

"I hate this bridge," said Zippy as we continued walking. "I saw a guy fall off it, and another guy in the river who tried to get down the falls and fell out of his boat..."

Back on dry land we finally spotted a cab...a VAN, in fact! The driver was sure that we could fit the bike inside, but he hadn't figured on Zippy's limited spatial abilities. I had a terrible feeling of deja vu: I was frustrating a cab driver by trying to accomodate a difficult person. I pictured myself paying for torn upholstery. I convinced Zippy to drive his bike to The Saloon and meet me there. Sound familiar?

12:30 - The Saloon. Finally at the rendezvous and Paul was nowhere to be seen. The bar was certainly NOT a place where you expect to see a drag queen...it was very much a boy pickup bar. Twisty corridors with multiple smoking areas. Another guy wearing a diaper* in a cage. Boys on the make, everywhere, everywhere. And then me.

So I found myself a quiet corner and moped a bit. I practiced my "happy face." The Amazing Dancing Bartender cheered me up, and then two sweet guys (whose names I tragically forget!) hung out with me and made fun of my accent. The Amazing Dancing Bartender took this picture, and I look deshevelled because I had just walked across the Mississippi River in a gale-force wind. And I felt an enormous heat in my face.

After some much-needed down-time -- and a tearful reunion with Paul -- I decided to end the night at:

1:30 am - The Brass Rail, which was once again the PERFECT place to be. A fabulous DJ (who you could TALK to, by the way!) and bar-bouncer "Cleo" (that's us on the right), a bunch of people from Copenhagen (one of whom was named Helga), a request for Parliament fulfilled, and a big "Price Is Right" wheel that you could spin if you wanted to but you probably shouldn't.

A sweet, up-and-coming bar dancer offered to walk me home after the bar closed. We walked down Hennepin arm-in-arm, the night beautiful and warm, the people staring at us. My trip was wonderful. It was ALL WORTH IT.

* I'm just kidding about the diapers. These go-go dancers wore white underwear but were so endowed that they LOOKED like they were wearing diapers.

Guelph Pride 2007!

This year's Guelph Pride event is taking place at the Guelph Holiday Inn (601 Scottsdale Drive) on Saturday, May 26th, starting at 9pm (cover of $10). Carla Donnell (of Magic 106.1) and mayor Farbridge will be involved in the festivities...and I'll be performing a few numbers to help spice up the night!

If you can, please drop by. These events are always a lot of fun.

Big City Muffy in Minneapolis (May 17)

This entry is for Thursday! To view the previous four days, see May 13th, May 14th, May 15th, and May 16th.

I apologize if you don't see a "comments" link in these posts...I think Blogger is a bit messed up at the moment as these links seem to come and go. Just comment in another post, or try refreshing the page!

Thursday morning and my vacation had officially started. No longer on an expense account, I made the paradoxical decision to start eating extravagant, non-complimentary breakfasts at Hell's Kitchen. People put great stock in their homemade peanut butter, but I didn't care about that! I wanted bacon and eggs and grease...no more Raisin Bran and CNN for me.

I had to stockpile some energy because I had a full day ahead of me. Yesterday both Jamie and Cindi had independently encouraged me to explore UPTOWN Minneapolis, a mysterious south-western realm beyond the highway and the convention center. Walking past these landmarks was significant: I was going where few STC Summit attendees had gone before!

And it was beautiful. I'd grown heartsick from too many skyscrapers, too much glass and steel, businessmen and panhandlers, parking garages and pavement. Within minutes I was walking down quiet, tree-lined streets where human beings actually lived. There was grass and blue sky, and people quietly going about their business.

I should pause and say that Minneapolis, as a whole, seemed to be a very liberal city. I followed Vanilla's strict advice never to talk politics while on vacation, but that didn't stop people from talking politics with ME...and nobody had anything but loathing for the Bush administration...at least nobody who brought it up, anyway. Either Americans talk freely about this issue amongst themselves as a way of letting off steam, or they like to talk about it to people from other countries.

I didn't see a single "Go Go Bush/Cheney!" sign until I left the city on Saturday, but I saw many anti-Bush and many more anti-Iraq signs, posters, T-shirts, and bumper stickers.

On an unrelated note I even found an official Mutation Research Technology truck parked in front of somebody's house, but since the truck's name was "Nebuchadnezzar" (according to a sign on the back) I assume they're less than serious about whatever it is they do.

It's not often that I find myself REQUIRED to kill time, so I wandered through parks and alleys, working my way down to Lyndale Street and spotting rabbits along the way. It was difficult for me to get a handle on Uptown's layout because it seemed to have several different arteries (Nicolette, Blaisdale, 24th Street) and these arteries were a jumble of residences and shopping areas and Wendy's restaurants. There was no single "center" of it all, but there was always something ELSE around the most insignificant of corners.

I made my rendezvous with Jamie Monroe at Vera's Cafe, the most laid-back meeting spot on earth. People wandered in and out of the patio, leaves dropped on our table, bouyant sparrows made social visits. We were shortly joined by the Brass Rail bouncer I'd met the previous night, whose name I shamefully forget and who I'll call "Cleo" (again, until I find out his actual name).

Coffee, relaxing, chatting, no schedule, revelling in laid-back bar/community politics, wishing their good friend a happy 21st birthday.

I'd originally planned to spend a bit of money on something -- clothes, shoes, kitsch -- but after last night's $60 "Bathroom Break and Scream-athon" I was less enthusiastic about depleting my funds. So I trailed after Jamie and Cleo as they showed me all the shopping hot-spots, and I even heard tantalizing rumours about a lake nearby. We looked at wigs and used clothing and novelty lingerie. Apparently the entire area was safe as long as I didn't go "past the K-Mart," so I decided to return on Friday and have another long look around.

Leaving my two Minneapolitan guardian angels behind I made the long trek back downtown. Here's one of the many instances I found of pervasive "Dumbum" graffiti: zero style but an A+ for fun!

Apparently the restaurants in town are packed with people even when the conferences are over, so I tucked myself in a corner of The Local, hemmed in on all sides by businesswomen with yacking laughs and belled-out pastel skirts.

The Local, like all the other Minneapolis restaurants I went to, had ridiculously powerful hand-dryers in their bathroom. This became a running joke during the conference. Even more disturbing were the toilets in Brits Pub, which warbled incomprehensible, quiet English phrases when you walked away from them, causing everybody to look around in alarm. The parking garages in Minneapolis also speak during rush hour, saying -- over and over again -- "Warning...car approaching." One of them said this to me in an East Indian accent.

I'd spent several days sitting in large conference halls full of people who coughed without covering their mouths. My Target vitamin C would only protect me for so long unless I spent a night or two in bed.

Looking after my health I returned to my hotel room, disposed of yet another newspaper that I'd forgotten to cancel, and lulled myself to sleep with logic puzzles and theories about The Big Bang. I was eagerly looking forward to my final night in town, and I'd already accomplished so much...I'd even found out what composer Paul Williams did with proceeds from The Muppet Movie.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Big City Muffy in Minneapolis (May 16)

This entry is for Wednesday! To view the previous three days, see May 13th, May 14th, and May 15th.

Eating my complimentary Raisin Bran on Wednesday morning I realized the basic flaw in my trip plan: I'd decided to stay on in Minneapolis so I'd have more time to hang around with good people...but all the people I'd met at the STC Summit would be flying out on Wednesday night! Then I'd enter stage two of the trip (exploration and nightclubs) where I'd meet MORE wonderful people...then *I* would be flying away on Saturday! So instead of somehow finding more time to hang around with new friends I would be meeting twice as many people and leaving them just as quickly.

"That's obvious!" you shout. For some reason I'd assumed that other Summit people would be staying in Minneapolis like I was...but none of them seemed to be, and I had yet to meet a Summit person from Minneapolis who was under forty and bar-hopper fun.

8:30 - "Distributed Writing: A Psychology of Social Computer Practices." This was one of those periods when I had to scrounge to find an interesting presentation, but fortunately Johannes Strobel gave the perfect early morning talk: relevant, friendly, and fun. I didn't take many notes because -- once again -- the session wasn't even remotely related to my line of work, but Strobel's point seemed to fall in line with the general Summit theme of forums/wikis/social networking sites being the "new literacy" in which many of the old rules no longer apply.

Sadly this session also had the highest level of "noise comments" from the audience, who constantly asked tangential questions in order to -- basically -- talk about themselves, their blogs, and their general web behaviour. Since Strobel seemed happy to answer any question regardless of its relevance, I compiled a list of question introduction warning signs...when somebody starts a question with one of these sentence fragments, you know it's time to take a bathroom break and grab a bottle of overpriced water in the lobby:
  • "Kind of similarly related..."
  • "I just wanted to say..."
  • "Can I just add..."
  • "Kind of a comment on..."
  • "I was gonna say..."
  • "When I used to..."
10:30 - "Case Studies in Content Management." Another scrounged-up topic. Remind me to avoid case study presentations at summits. The only notes I made from this session were that Paul Doyle said "a whole 'nother thing" and the guy from RIM said "higglety-pigglety."

Alright, yes, the three presenters talked about their experiences moving content from one management system to another: from an HTML website to a more sophisticated web 2.0 style, from Framemaker to some sort of XML style, etc. Since our docs department is pretty happy with our tools (and we can't even upgrade our existing software, let alone move to an entirely new content management system) I didn't find this session very interesting.

1:30 - "If You're So Smart, Why Does Your Writing Suck?" Bonus points for an enticing title, Karen A. Schriver actually pulled the session together with some relevant (and entertaining) content. Once again we were reminded not to focus ONLY on design and "good English," but Schriver took a more optimistic and proactive approach than many of the other speakers who'd touched on this theme. She told us to avoid "knowledge telling" -- fact/data dumps that use "inside language" and which overestimate the audience's familiarity with a topic -- and be more sensitive to the audience. Good tips, and something we shouldn't need to be told (but we still DO need to be told).

3:30 - Closing Session. After some tastefully short presentations we were totally overwhelmed by Ze Frank, who was exceptionally funny. Much like Jean-luc Doumont he gave some lighthearted interpretations of "low context" signs ("lock your giant baby in a suitcase") before moving into an increasingly serious examination of social network sites.

I wasn't ENTIRELY sure of his final point, but he seemed to be a bit of an apologist for trolls, saying that (like the rest of us) they just wanted to be part of the communication, and that those people behave like trolls for various reasons...reasons that didn't seem to include MY theory, which is that trolls desperately want attention but -- for whatever reason -- just do it in an antisocial way (which Frank likened to doodling genitals at a social gathering). The same way that immature kids pull pigtails because they don't know how to express themselves, or because they're jerks.

He said that, yes, social-interaction technology is evolving at an enormous rate, but humans still have the same old social needs: intimacy, jealousy, egotism, etc. I'm not sure if he ever made a distinct and final point because I wasn't taking notes, and I'm definitely paraphrasing from what I remember of his talk.

Aha, dinner. It was time to budget, and since all of the restaurants in downtown Minneapolis were INCREDIBLY expensive (and since I didn't have any food appliances in my hotel room other than the coffee maker and the ice bucket) I resigned myself to the only food & booze convenience store in the area. I always find that the cashiers and fast-food employees in America are offensively rude, but I think it might be because I'm actually NICE to them; I say "please" and "thank you" and "have a nice day," and since I don't see anybody ELSE doing this, maybe it comes across as obnoxious or condescending to them. Or maybe they're jerks. Or they think I'm a jerk.

10:00 pm - The Gay '90s: Time for fun and adventure! I found myself in the large and complicated "Gay '90s" nightclub, which was apparently dead for even an average Wednesday night. A sad and lonely go-go dancer -- apparently wearing a diaper -- gyrated in a cage for an empty bar. The drag show upstairs was slightly better attended, and I found myself able to WATCH an excellent show without actually needing to PARTICIPATE.

After "Maurice" told me that I was "so pretty and naive!" I hooked up with a quiet New Yorker who politely listened to my sociological sputtering. Every drink seemed to be a bigger and more alcoholic one. Eventually, bored, I left the bar and moved down the street to:

1:30 am - The Brass Rail: Tiny bar! Tiny stage! But WONDERFUL people. Trying to regulate my alcohol intake I asked for a single vodka & diet in a tall glass, and the bartender gave me a Long Island iced tea instead. Jamie Monroe arrived to say hi and to invite me out for coffee the following day, which was the moment when my Minneapolis trip changed from "depressing" and "uncertain" to "fabulous!" But as the liquored-up drink started hitting me, things began to grow a little hazy...

A woman named Xavia came into the bar and tried to teach the bartender to make a "Matrix Martini," which involved a lot of incoherent verbal ejaculations and produced a skunky concoction that I was forced to drink part of. Xavia was impeccably dressed and extremely drunk, and she was depressed. Remember that resolution I made about "giving something back" to people during my trip? After Xavia was kicked out of the bar I decided to listen to her and try to get her home.

I have only disconnected impressions of this part of the night, because it was all so surreal. Xavia and I sat on Hennepin Ave and she told me she was a registered nurse, her daughter was a psychopath, and her husband was a deadbeat. In trying to give me her phone number she poured nail polish all over my purse. I told her I'd get her into a taxi and take her home, and she promised to "feed me."

The cab driver's English was poor, so when Xavia gave him an address and he said "are you SURE?" I thought maybe he just didn't understand. I said I'd pay to get her home, he shrugged, and off we drove. Xavia was loud and demonstrative, saying she couldn't approve of my lifestyle because of her religion and repeatedly shouting "YOU DON' KNOW!" I found all this fascinating and she was beginning to calm down a bit...until I noticed that we were on a freeway someplace in the middle of a black wilderness, and the cab fare was up to $30.

Then it hit me...Xavia was too drunk to really know ANYTHING. She'd said she lived in Minneapolis, but she'd given some far-off address to God knows where...an after party? Her parent's house? Another state? So I told the cab driver to turn around, and Xavia started yelling that we had to keep going, and out of everybody I felt the most sorry for the poor driver, especially when she started screaming "I GOTTA PEE! OH GOD! I GOTTA PEE RIGHT NOW!"

We pulled onto an off-ramp, she rolled out of the car and pee'd on the front tire, then she lurched back in saying "Where's the TOWEL?" which I'm sure the driver wasn't happy about. We fought all the way back to Minneapolis, and Xavia's friendship turned gradually to hatred; in her mind I was abandoning her, even though I was returning her only a few blocks from where we'd started from in the first place. I paid the driver $60 -- the price of trying to help this woman out -- and she glared at me like a dog who wanted to bite something it hates. Last I saw she'd managed to get into another cab...the first driver, obviously, didn't want her around anymore.

I was just busting to bitch about this situation and Cindi -- the poor desk clerk at the hotel -- got to listen to me. Fortunately she was wonderful and exposed to me the world of UPTOWN Minneapolis, where the stores are funky and the coffee shops are friendly.

Suddenly I was comfortable in Minneapolis. I'd lost my Summit friends but I'd instantly met some new and wonderful people, and I'd also survived a harrowing experience in a cab with a drunk and crazy woman. Inebriated and happy, my trip was REALLY beginning!

Big City Muffy in Minneapolis (May 15)

This is part three! For parts one and two see May 13th and May 14th.

8:30 am
- "If I'd Known Then What I Know Now--Lessons Learned and Best Practices." Many of us started Tuesday morning watching this panel discussion. Besides pointers about resumes, career advancement, and mentoring, the recurring focus was on a theme that was pervasive throughout the entire summit: since many people now get "help" through forums and wikis as opposed to formal documentation, the "good English" and formatting of a help document is becoming less and less important. The user with broken English can give you just as good (maybe even more cutting edge) help, and they can do it immediately without any frills or nifty pictures or anything.

This upset the two editors in the audience. Their job was basically to make sure that their documents looked good and were written correctly, so what sort of future did they have in a forum/wiki world? The panelists were pessimistic, the editors miffed.

I think the pundits are so anxious to spot a trend that they're jumping the gun on this one. Many people read manuals -- I'm one of them -- and there are some environments where manuals are still considered essential. The manuals that *I* write are for products bought by large media networks, which are disseminated to operators throughout the company. These networks DO NOT allow their operators to just play with the software until they figure it out; they need their operators to be up to speed BEFORE they go on air. And as of a few months ago these companies were CLAMORING for the latest and most up-to-date manuals.

Whether this is a disconnect between management and users, or a difference between consumer products and business products, is difficult to say. But I'm not willing to throw page design and "good English" out the window yet.

10:30 am - "The Use of Cultural Models in Web Design and What Eye Tracking Reveals about Web Usability." Many of us found titles like this to be ironic at a technical communication summit, not to mention the ill-designed session manual (which session period does this page header refer to?) and the dreadful PDF version (which started on page ten and caused constipation in our printers). Regardless, my psych/globalization side wanted to see this session even if it didn't relate to my job in any way whatsoever.

Kathleen Gygi gave a lacklustre report about websites in Uzbekistan. Apparently these websites are usually blue, or something. It was difficult to follow her conclusions, let alone understand how she'd arrived at them (a scale of website blue-eyness, maybe?)

Then Lynne M. Cooke gave a much better presentation about an eye tracking experiment, intended to find out how users look for specific pieces of information on web pages. Her main conclusion was that users look for links that both match their search criteria AND speak to their personal conceptions of themselves as audience members, and her secondary conclusion was that people don't often look at pictures on web pages, especially if the pictures look remotely like advertisements. This was disputed by another researcher in the audience, which brought a spark to the discussion until they'd figured out the differences in their research methods (people DO look at pictures if the picture is of a product they're specifically searching for).

I went back to The Local for lunch with Sue and her brother, where we chatted about the problems with pollen in Minneapolis (which had laid a few people low already), then returned for:

2:00 pm - "Polishing Your Pictures." Like I said, I came to the summit partly to find out how to improve the images and charts in my documents, and Patrick Hofmann's presentation made lots of sense: standardize the attributes of your images, decide on the "primary focus" for every image, decide what needs to be emphasized or excluded, and test your image by VERBALIZING what you see in it. He described some methods for displaying screenshots, which was a real revelation for me: you don't NEED to show the entire dialog in the manual! You CAN crop it, if you present the cropped area properly! That's stuff I can USE.

But throughout the presentation I couldn't help thinking that I recognized him, and that he was lacking the midwestern twang or southern drawl I'd been growing so accustomed to. When he mentioned growing up in a small town in Ontario I became even more suspicious. I spoke to him briefly after his talk and he instantly recognized me from Club Abstract -- a K/W native! -- and though we tried to make plans to get together we just never managed to connect, for whatever reason.

4:00 pm - Rather than go to Tuesday's final session I decided to spend the afternoon exploring downtown Minneapolis, taking some pictures along the way. I'd heard about the "warehouse district" that supposedly had some hipster stores in it, and since we'd found ourselves among refurbished warehouses during our previous night's walk, I retraced our steps and tried to explore the northern part of the city.

Starting at the Mississippi -- which is much more impressive than my picture conveys -- I went Northwest in search of warehouses. I zig-zagged back and forth a bit but was unable to find any shops, and eventually I found myself in a district full of REAL warehouses and factories, across a set of railway tracks and totally lost. I could SEE downtown Minneapolis but I couldn't get back to it: I was blocked off by fences and closed pedestrian walkways, and when I say "fences" I mean eight-foot structures with angled barbed wire at the top.

In this picture I'm trapped within a literal maze of fences, behind a series of factories whose gates are locked and unattended. Worried about rain, closing gates, and the strange man who I kept running into, I'd decide to go on another few blocks, only to find myself in yet another fenced-in dead-end.

Finally I retraced my steps almost all the way back to the river. Back at my hotel I realized that I had no dinner plans; everybody makes these plans at the final sessions, which I'd just skipped. Tim told me that another amorphous group of writers would be meeting at Brits Pub. I found myself an honourary member of the "Lone Writers" special interest group, eating samosas with the shyest Calgarian you can possibly imagine. There was speculation about a trip to the local gay bars but I decided to turn in early. The night was over, it was too late to start getting into drag, I was bushed, and what the heck would I do during the next four days?

A Break: "Remind Me" by Royksopp

To help break the monotony of seven posts about Minneapolis, here's a video that presenter (and UofW graduate) Patrick Hofmann played before his "Polishing Your Pictures" session.



Yeah, yeah, it's a wonderful illustration of all sorts of effective design concepts...but it's also a great song and a great video!

Big City Muffy in Minneapolis (May 14)

This is part two! Click here for part one.

They provide a complimentary breakfast in two small rooms at the Holiday Inn, and they discourage you from lingering by playing CNN really loud. They also employ this technique in the lobby to keep you from using the computer for too long (and to also keep you updated about stranded whales, shipwrecked booty, and Jerry Falwell's long-overdue death).

In this picture you can see the conference center in the background. Everybody gathered there at 8:30 am for the Keynote General Session, where STC people honoured other STC people and where Al Gore (absent) was given an award for "An Inconvenient Truth," which the three bull-necked guys in front of me scoffed at. The crowd of educated, critical thinking technical writers seemed surprisingly lukewarm about Gore's film and his techniques of communication. A subset of the crowd became even more edgy when Simon Singh, the keynote speaker, praised the film and trashed "The Great Global Warming Swindle."

Ah yes, Mr. Singh. A few years ago I read his "The Code Book," and on May 13th I picked up his latest book ("The Big Bang") to help save me from an avalanche of depressing novels. As honourary STC fellow, Singh spoke at the conference and gave us a deconstruction and analysis of his "Fermat's Last Theorem" documentary. He even confessed to his own switcheroo: he'd subtly modified a quote from a mathematician in order to translate it into layman's terms. He discussed the lines that documentary filmmakers need to cross in order to make an understandable film. In short, as long as you keep the intent of the quote without distorting it, you're probably okay. If you feel guilty or the person you interviewed gets angry, that's bad.

11:00 am - Since the "How to Design Anything" session was cancelled I found myself attending "Tips and Tricks for Adobe RoboHelp Users." I constantly use RoboHelp (version five) to create online and dialog help for projects, and it's absolutely hellish...but it does what it's supposed to do (and if we'd upgrade our copies we'd be able to do a bit more, like create conditional text and use text variables).

Unfortunately many of the tips were for users of version six, and the one tip I was looking forward to -- how to prevent a help topic from appearing during a "search" -- was a terrible and embarassing kludge that I wouldn't wish on anybody. So I didn't get anything out of this session other than a trial copy of version six and a sneak preview of the Totally Exciting and Amazing Version Seven.

Here's my own tip for Adobe: don't send a developer to demo a product unless he does professional demos on the side. The guy who showed us Version Seven was incoherent and spent most of the time showing us how to move and dock windows on the screen, which is not much of a "feature" and something that people know how to do anyway. Based on the sneak-preview I can confidently report that there are many, many ways to move and dock windows in the new version of RoboHelp. In fact there are almost LIMITLESS ways to meticulously move a window, if you include moving the window in all four directions, as well as all the combinations of those directions. You get a lot of window-docking-mileage out of Robohelp Seven, and there may be some other features too that we never got to hear about.

During lunch I ran into Tim from Philiadelphia, who recognized me in the Panera Bread line. He followed the networking instructions we learned during orientation ("It's just talking!") and we hit it off. Tim invited me to a somewhat nebulous and impromptu eat/drink meeting scheduled for that night, which I happily agreed to. Tim became my most constant and welcome companion in Minneapolis and I hope I get to attend next year's STC Summit, which will be held in his hometown.

During lunch I also ran into Sue, who I used to work with in the pre-buyout days of my company. It's ALWAYS a pleasure running into Sue! Plus we got to gossip about work in a way that we couldn't do when she was actually an employee...

1:30 pm - "Effective Page Layout for the Nonartist." I can't design a chart or a diagram to save my life so I hoped to get some tips at the summit. This session (by the very entertaining Jean-luc Doumont) was more for people who design 20-page reports than for those who write 200-page manuals, but I found two of his ideas useful: more blank space equals greater readability, and it's bad to give yourself too many options. He recommended choosing strict constraints for your projects -- one font, one style, one colour, all spacing constrained to horizontal and vertical integers -- with exceptions allowed ONLY when doing so adds value. Also be consistent.

In short, the page templates which we use at my workplace are ALREADY excellent and conform to most of his design specifications, for which I can thank my manager (who was also nice enough to approve my Minneapolis trip, incidentally).

Then Doumont went completely off the deep end, describing how he manually composes his emails so that EVERY line ends EXACTLY at an abnormally short right margin, INCLUDING the final line. Seriously, he chooses his words and punctuation and sentence structure to make sure his monospaced text ends PERFECTLY. God forbid should he need to add something in the middle of a paragraph at a later time, or should the email receiver view his emails in a small window, but he claims that nobody has ever complained. Chances are that's because nobody cares as much about email formatting as he does.

Incidentally the different elements of technical communication -- formatting, "good English," and "good content" -- kept being debated during the conference. I'll get to that later, but let's say that Doumont still believes that formatting is EXTREMELY important (but, like I said, his demographic is more businesspeople and ad agencies that folks who read computer manuals).

3:30 pm - "Road Signs: Finding Your Way in the Visual World." I couldn't resist ANOTHER presentation by Jean-luc Doumont. This one was 75% fun and 25% content, but his points were interesting (if not always useful).

By juxtaposing North American signs with European signs he illustrated the differences between "high context" and "low context" cultures, and showed the pros and cons of "wordy" versus visual signs. In short, wordy (high context) signs spell everything out for you but can overload you with information, can be difficult for people who don't speak the language, and still assume that the reader understands some degree of context ("xing ped" for example).

More visual signs are useful if their concepts are unambiguous, but it was easy to understand that there are problems with standardizing colours/shapes/symbols, not to mention gender issues (how are men and women figures represented?). Is it better to use old, established icons (telephones, televisions) as opposed to updated ones that better represent what the objects look like today? And what kind of a dog is a dog, anyway?

Tim and I met up with the rest of his posse, one of whom was an ex-Minniapolitan who took us to a bar with a moose head in it. We discussed the Boston Molasses Disaster and finally found that statue of Mary Tyler Moore that everyone told me to see. I found an instant conversational chemistry with C., who was born and raised in the deep south (New Orleans, Austin) and who told me what SHE thought about politics, Katrina, books, and The South.

C. really wanted to visit the 112 Eatery so we began a drunken walk which first took us to the Mississippi river, then past "Sexworld," and finally to the eatery itself, which was uncomfortably swanky but apparently served excellent fois gras meatballs.

Big City Muffy in Minneapolis (May 13)

I started a journal on May 13th at 7:30 am. I stopped making entries in the journal at 9:15. Why? I don't know. Maybe we can figure it out as I present this retrospective examination of my days in Minneapolis, from May 13th to May 20th.

But first an explanation. I signed up to attend the three-day annual Technical Communication Summit, and since my airfare would already be covered I decided to extend my stay in Minneapolis, therefore getting a short "holiday" that theoretically would cost me very little. I find it sad that whenever I visit someplace, I always have to leave just after I've met a group of wonderful people. This way I'd meet wonderful people...and have the time to get to KNOW them a bit!

The problem is that I'm a sort of nervous, panic-stricken individual who does not adapt well to change. I also had to leave my cat behind for an entire week, and I'm sad to say that I've grown almost TOO attached to her. I've become the type of person that I make fun of: reclusive, ritualistic, and in love with an animal. So this trip was bound to be a bit trumatic.

I think airports are awful because their procedures change every time I visit them. At 6:30 am on Sunday morning -- still depressed about the cat -- I dealt with new automated machines that both check your luggage AND give you a boarding pass, which required more than the usual amount of passport/E-ticket/luggage juggling. I was also embedded in a group of women who were going to Minneapolis for a missionary conference. One of them shouted "Praise Jesus!" when she discovered her misplaced passport.

My first instinct was to make fun of these people -- if Jesus needs to intervene every time you're a scatterbrain, shouldn't you shape up to make his job a little bit easier? -- I started to form a resolution that was to cause much joy and suffering throughout the week. I watched these women sitting together and waiting for the plane, and I couldn't help acknowledging that they were the most friendly, social, and happy people at the Gate (if not in the entire airport). They swapped stories about child-rearing and discussed their needlepoint projects ("It's the Twelve Days of Christmas, but the problem is that they get more detailed with each day!") while the rest of us hunkered down with our books and iPods and our soon-to-be abandoned journals.

So I made this resolution: in Minneapolis, I would be as friendly, giving, and tolerant as possible. I would emphasize COMMONALITIES instead of differences. Instead of relying totally on the kindness of strangers -- which I so often do when I travel -- I'd try to give something back to society by being generous and open-minded. In short I'd be a gullible schlump, but we'll get to that on May 16th.

In the airplane I was thrilled to see Lake Huron. Or was it Lake Ontario? Or Erie? It was hard to say but I DO know we flew over some awfully big lakes. We also looked down on segregated patches of farmland and gradually lost sight of smaller things like cars and houses, though the pill-shaped racetracks were always visible, as usual. This leads me to wonder (as I always do when I fly) why we have so many racetracks? They're everywhere, but it never seems that way on the ground. We also got to see the tops of storm clouds which were black and evil and rising up toward us in characteristic anvil shapes.

On the ground, however, Minneapolis was sunny and hot. It was 10 am on a Sunday morning, but with the time change (and the fact that I'd been awake since 4:30) it felt like the afternoon, and my first view of the city was devastating: no people. No cars. Just deserted buildings and shops. Not even the Scientology and Christian Science buildings were open. Since my hotel room wasn't ready yet I wandered around and around and around: skyways, parking garages, enormous corporate headquarters, no place to eat, no place to buy a coffee. And only me on the streets.

I was already sad about "the cat thing" but now I had a new worry: was Minneapolis a pathetic ghost town? Was I doomed to spend an entire week in this place without new friends or new experiences or any form of social interaction beyond the Automatic Baggage and Boarding Pass machines at the airport?

In hindsight it's obvious that ANY city is deserted on Sunday morning, but this was a blow to my already fragile state of mind. To lift my spirits I retreated to my hotel room and tried to read the two books which I'd brought along based on their size (small and light) as opposed to any real foresight. The first, "Nights in the Underground" by Marie-Clair Blais, was about a depressed and homesick woman who tried desperately to find warmth and comfort in a strange city. The other was "Diversey" by MacKinlay Kantor, about a depressed and homesick man who tried desperately to find warmth and comfort in a strange city.

Feeling justifiably homesick and depressed, I made a beeline to Barnes and Noble to buy books that wouldn't make my life any more difficult than it already was, books interesting and happy but not Opra-stupid. I settled on "The Big Bang" by the wonderful Simon Singh and a book of "Challenging Logic Puzzles" by Barry R. Clarke ("Hearts is one place before Bleereye who was two places after King"). As a sidenote, I found MacKinlay Kantor's literal transcription of regional dialects to be even more depressing than the book's subject matter ("Hooey, juss out, juss out. Hooey, aggstry papey, hooey. Allll ay-bowt thu big----Hooey, hooey!")

I bought a third book on the recommendation of a woman at the bookstore -- "Me Talk Pretty One Day" by David Sedaris -- but I didn't get around to opening it. I was uncertain about that woman's judgement, since her first recommendation -- after hearing my "interesting and happy" requirement -- was a book about the destruction of the World Trade Center ("I know it doesn't sound funny, but it really is!")

5:00 pm: Finally time to register for the Conference and join the "First Timer's" meeting, where they deliberately make you sit at large tables with other people who are all looking inward, supposedly so you can meet each other. I sat beside Art from Illinois, who told me all about the Canadian parliamentary system and kept confusing me by saying "English" when he meant "British." He shouted out details about poverty, racism, politics, and economics. He told me how best to interact with Native Americans, all without any prompting whatsoever. When more people joined our table and another one of them happened to be Canadian, Art yelled out "Thank God the Canadians are here, now we'll have some SMART people at the conference!" I decided that Art was not somebody I wanted to hang around with.

Instead I went to The Local with B., a woman who rarely made eye contact, instead gazing to the right of my face in a lofty way. We had an illuminating and equal chat about books and food and writing, but when somebody has a lofty expression which she won't even aim directly at me I figure they either don't like me or they don't like themselves. So B. and I didn't eat food together again.

Afterwards I shopped at Target for the first time, which made me think of Josie and the Pussycats. I was amazed when the cashier built a sturdy "carrying handle" for my Diet Pepsi out of Target stickers, but when I laughed and pointed she glared at me like it was something I should be used to, which means this innovation is probably a common one at Target stores. It certainly made it easier to lug the Pepsi back to my hotel.

One more word about Target: I always thought it was similar to Walmart, but if you say that to people who are familiar with Target they will vehemently deny any comparison. People in Minneapolis are proud that their Downtown is almost totally devoid of chain stores, and rightfully so. Unless you count Target and Starbucks and Macy's and Walgreen's, of course.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Mini Minneapolis Thoughts

Let's see how much I can write before somebody else wants to use the computer.

Here are my impressions about Minneapolis. This mainly regards the downtown area:
  • Clean, clean, clean. There is not a speck of dirt in this area. Even the skiddy areas are spotless.
  • Gorgeous and varied architecture.
  • More than adequate green space and gathering places, though you're still aware of constant traffic.
  • So many one-way streets.
  • Because of all the one-way streets, everybody J-Walks.
  • Things are MUCH closer than they seem. Whenever I see a building in the distance I think "jeez, that'll take half an hour to get to," and five minutes later I'm there. This is diametrically opposite the way Las Vegas feels.
  • Skywalks everywhere.
  • The giant Target store, the giant Target office building, the giant Target stadium...
  • Charming, laid-back, almost poetic pan-handlers who seem to appreciate conversation more than money. Though that's probably their schtick.
  • Apparently people DO live downtown, but I can't imagine where.

The Sucker Canadjin

Gah! Gah! Gah!

It's true, I can still blog from the Holiday Inn in Minneapolis, but unless it's 2am (like it is now) it's a bit difficult.

All I can say is that I just spent $60 trying to get somebody home. I tried and I tried and I tried. We were in a taxi cab going NOWHERE, and when I realized that we were LITERALLY going nowhere I tried to turn us back to Minneapolis...but regardless, a $60 bill (that I paid) just to drive somebody AWAY (so they could pee on an off-ramp) and then back to my hotel (where they treated me like shite for abandoning them) was a bit of a shock. So sad!

It's a basic fact that people get burned for charity. We pay for all those times we pass by homeless people on the street. But my goodness I am frustrated that I just paid for somebody who is too drunk to ever know how much trouble I've gone through...

Is that the wrong attitude? Probably.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Is That You, Minnie?

My goodness, one HECK of a week getting everything organized for my trip. Which sessions will I attend at the conference? I'm particularly looking forward to one called "If You're So Smart, Why Does Your Writing Suck?" Where should I go for fun? Brass Rail, Ground Zero, Euphoria, and Gay '90s all look entertaining. What should I wear when I'm there? How much money should I bring? How can I break it to my cat?

Savvy traveller that I am, I've managed to "trim the fat" and bring only the barest (and lightest) essentials. Meanwhile, next door, my sweet neighbour and her boyfriend are trying to trap a squirrel that chewed its way into her apartment, and she just told me that she's moving out in two weeks. Horror! She was so nice and quiet. The next people will probably be a bad death metal band with rotten breath. And a baby.

On Thursday I participated in the Yearly Duckling Rescue, which means catching and relocating the freshly-hatched babies out of the impossible nesting place that mama duck often chooses. Only the hardiest babies can get out, so unless we climb up there, the majority will die. In between vicious attacks by mother duck herself I also managed to gouge my arms countless times on the Juniper, which it turns out I'm allergic to. So I'll be going through customs looking like I have the next big Canadian disease.

Think of me! Send good vibes! May I be healthy, happy, respected, and safe! Amen.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Card and Dice Hustlers

In my final year of University I took three courses that literally changed the way I look at the world. They were all taught by Robert C. Prus, torch-bearer for Symbolic Interactionism and a really entertaining guy. Unfortunately Prus couldn't (or wouldn't) seem to get a handle on the DIFFICULTY of his courses, and would heap us with huge amounts of diverse reading material and then give us really evil tests.

I've got my transcript in front of me. I achieved a C- in "Deviance: Perspectives and Processes," a D in "Social Psychology and Everyday Life," and I actually DROPPED OUT of "Sociology of Marketing and Sales" because I simply couldn't handle it.

Regardless, I look back on these courses as the most significant ones I ever took. After the somewhat rigid, dogmatic, and cocky field of Psychology -- my actual major -- this new discipline really spoke to me: a discipline of flexible patterns in individual behaviour as opposed to standard deviations and multiple-choice questionaires.

Prus wrote many of the books we had to read. One of them was "Road Hustler" (written with pseudononymous professional card sharp "C.R.D. Sharper"), a book about the profession of card and dice hustlers: people who discreetly infiltrate parties and stack the odds in their favour using various means. I didn't read the book when I was taking the course (I barely had time to BREATHE at the time), but I'm reading it now and it's plenty informative, especially if you want to understand why people gamble and how hustlers of all types "get along."

The book follows Prus' typical Symbolic Interaction script: interviewing professionals, sitting in when he can, then fitting the people's actions into a framework he developed. Basically he tries to figure out how people become involved with an activity, how and why they stay, and how they eventually become disinvolved. He seeks out the patterns involved with the activity and presents them in logical ways, liberally interspersed with long quotations from the people in the business. Prus is so methodical in his approach that you wind up seeing every situation from a dozen possible angles, and some of the revelations are striking (often even more striking because they're so mundane...you just never THOUGHT about it before).

It really is fascinating to read how these people ply their trade, and it would take far too long (and involve far too many digressions) to summarize it all here. But as usual I'm curious about how gender figures in this world of hustlers and grifters.

In short, it doesn't, really. Card sharps seem anxious to avoid women in professional situations except when they can be used as enticements. Speaking about hiring women to entice men into hotel suites during huge conventions:
Like these women, they're always looking to get laid, to make a little extra money. You tell them, "You don't have to do anything but be sociable," and you pay them a good buck, but they always seem to get some guy away from your game... once they see a guy with money, they try to grab him for themselves. If they get him out of the game, that's bad, because we want to beat him in the crap game. But, they come in handy, you have to have the chicks around. Imagine f you didn't, some guy comes up "What am I coming to this room for, there's no women here!"
This viewpoint isn't derogatory, it's the view that professional card sharps seem to have toward any person who isn't part of their "crew"...they can't be trusted, they don't have any regard for the well-being of the entire group, and they're quickly jettisoned when they're no longer necessary.

When it comes to women who aren't hired -- who are just there as part of the party, and aren't "wise" to the situation -- card sharps have different attitudes, depending on the marital status of the women:
Say you go to a convention where they have their wives with them. This is usually not as good, because the wives will hold the men back or the committees will be more concerned with appearances.
When it comes to single women, however
Okay, so you might get near the bar and set up a table and start rolling the dice, sort of joking about it, not getting too serious. Then, you try to involve some good-looking chick, "Come on over here, baby doll, and shoot for me!" And these women will roll the dice for the longest time, because they are the center of attention. They have all these men around and they love it... You don't mention any money at first, but later, as they see all this money changing hands, almost every one of them will say, "Well, what do I get?" So then you say, "Well, see this twenty, or fifty, if you make one more pass, I will give you this." Now, my partner is prepared, and when she rolls the dice towards him, boom, he makes sure she loses... the guys go for it, and once they get started, they get caught up in the betting. Sometimes a crew will pay a good-looking woman a hundred just to have her hang around that table for the evening.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band - THE MOVIE!

Why were so few musicals made during the '70s and '80s? Because producers had either forgotten the crucial elements of a Wonderful Musical or they found themselves unable to pull those elements together.

First off, here's my impromptu list of required elements in a musical:

  1. Excellent performances from ALL the principal characters. They must be able to sing and dance (or at the very least warble and move to basic choreography). But "acting ability" is also at the top of the list, as it should be in any film...just because it's a "musical" doesn't mean you don't need to "act."
  2. Excellent songs. Not just well-written but well-performed too.
  3. Enthusiasm. You just can't sell a musical unless you look like you MEAN it.
  4. Interesting set-pieces.
  5. Professional back-up dancers.
Think of the movie musicals that SUCCEEDED in the '70s and '80s. They contain all of the above elements. And even the ones that didn't succeed and subsequently became cult favourites (Phantom of the Paradise, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tommy) had killer songs and performers who -- even if they weren't top-notch -- still behaved like they were putting EVERYTHING into it. Paul Williams couldn't act but he was still fun to watch. The Rocky Horror cast fell back on theater experience (and heels) to "sell" themselves. Ann-Margaret...well, got doused in soap suds, beans, and chocolate. How many actresses would put up with that, with Ken Russell probably flashing his genitals behind the camera at the same time?

The musicals that DIDN'T succeed tended to lack this CRUCIAL enthusiasm, and I believe this is because they were "committee" efforts that were trying to cash in by bringing in the NEWEST stars and the NEWEST fads. They put "stardom" above "acting ability" and "chemistry. "The Wiz" and "Xanadu" were largely overshadowed by their gimmicky concepts: "Diana Ross in a funky urban remake with Michael Jackson" and "rotoscoped Newton-John on roller-skates with animation by Don Bluth, and oh yeah, the Tubes," respectively.

But the only thing more embarassing than watching Gene Kelly in a giant pinball machine is paying careful attention to 1978s "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band." It has the requisite well-written songs and the professional back-up dancers, but those two bonuses only highlight how awful everything else is.

It goes without saying that Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees don't belong here, and I don't mean in an "isn't Diana Ross awfully old to play Dorothy?" sort of way. I mean that they're unsuited to the music and that they cannot act. They sound insecure and they look insecure, in every scene, all of the time. They're the main characters in the film but they CANNOT deliver enthusiasm...they're too busy remembering not to look at the camera. Nothing spoils a sad, pivotal scene more than the Gibb brothers tidying up their receeding rock-star hair in a funeral procession.

George Burns comes in second as Most Unsuited to his role. As Mr. Kite he actually does quite well, but when called upon to sing "Fixing a Hole" with small children, my goodness...if you only watch ONE thing in the movie, WATCH THIS. In case you missed it, here's his inspired contribution to the songwriting of Lennon and McCartney, painfully transcribed from the DVD:

"Oh one and-a two... one two three, da-dah, bah, bah, ba-ba-ba-bah, bah, bah,
ba-ba-buh-bah... dee-dee, dee-dee, dee-doo, dee-diddly-diddly-diddly ...and
one...two. One...two..."

This "white man scat" comes with dance steps that the children can remember but he can't.

So we've got iconic songs that are gorgeously written, being performed by bloodless disco hipsters or bloodless non-singers (don't be surprised that I'm lumping Donald Pleasance in the second category). It doesn't help that the song production is anemic, perhaps George Martin's revenge for all those years he didn't get any credit. Sometimes the performances ARE good, though...Dianne ("who?") Steinberg is the one bright light as an actress, singer, and sufferer of a pre-movie bikini wax. Billy Preston's "Get Back" is inspired, though the scene itself was obviously shot after the filmmakers ran out of money. Aerosmith kicks butt (even if they get beaten up by The Bee Gees...SERIOUSLY) and Sandy ("WHO?") Farina also had some talent behind her rabbity overbitten face. And even though Steve Martin can't sing, he at least LOOKS like he's having fun.

What does that leave us? The set-pieces, while obviously expensive, look like they were cut out of a cheap pop-up book. You have the king of toilet jokes (Frankie Howerd) managing to turn "When I'm Sixty-Four" into a naughty little number. Not to mention the cheesy '70s sex routine, which means Robin Gibb going pop-eyed and falling over when presented with raunchy women wearing Parliament's cast-offs (Stargard, AKA "WHO???").

At least "Sgt. Pepper's" has the professional back-up dancers. They're REALLY the best part of the movie. Don't watch the principal characters, just look at the people dancing around behind them. Pay particular attention to "The Computerettes," two professional ballerinas in creepy outfits who sing like the Bee Gees filtered through a vocoder.

To give credit where credit is due: Steinberg and Paul "Cousin Kevin" Nicholas singing "You Never Give Me Your Money," Barry Gibb's "A Day in the Life," and Farina's "Strawberry Fields Forever" are all gems. And, honestly, the scriptwriters have done a pretty good job of making a coherent, clever, child-friendly plot out of a bunch of disconnected (and often mystically drug-inspired) songs.

It's also worth it for the "slice of the '70s" scene at the end, featuring an esoteric collection of people who worked closely with The Beatles at some point in their careers (but mostly Carol Channing fluffing her words).

And hey, who's that near the back? It's Marcy Levy! And to think I drank booze and did a flygirl dance with that woman!