Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A priest's harem

The day I travelled down to Rochester dawned fresh and bright and full of the scents of spring. The sun shone, birds chirped and bunnies skipped through the fields, oblivious to the fact they would shortly be caught, covered in chocolate and stuffed into an egg for Easter. Yet, despite all these pleasantries, I was nervous.


Because we were about to cross the Canadian-USA border and there was a non-finite chance I might be detained and miss my flight back to Japan. In three weeks time. 

Since I had --upon consideration-- decided against renting a car on my slightly illegal Canadian driving license[*] and using it to cross an international border, I was hitching a ride with a friend. She and I used to play on the same hockey team in Canada and we were visiting another ex-team mate who was a Baptist minister and had recently relocated to a church over the border. Really, you couldn't do better than our trip for shiny, wholesome fun. 

Knowing the USA border as I did, I suspected we would be detained for decades.

My friend was Canadian and in possession of a 'Nexus card'; an ID program that allows pre-approved, low-risk travellers to skip the queues at the Canadian-USA border. However, on this trip her vehicle was harbouring a British citizen who was working in Japan, visiting Canada and carrying a new passport which contained suspiciously little evidence of her sordid part. Low-risk we were not. We would have to go through the long way. 

"Where are you from?"



And so the questions began. 

"What is the purpose for your trip?"

"We're visiting a friend," my friend explained. "He lives in Rochester."

"And what does he do?"

"He's a minister," my friend obediently expanded. "He's Canadian but working in the USA."

"And what sort of friend is he?"

OK, let's take a pause in our story to consider WHAT SORT OF QUESTION IS THAT? This guy has a car in front of him which contains two women of different nationalities, one from neither of the countries that this border straddles. The questions I was expecting concerned how I knew my chauffeur, how long I was going to be in North America and what I was doing here to begin with. His main concern seemed to be how did some religious dude get a job abroad and import an international harem of women for his guilty pleasures.

You believe I'm unfairly jumping the gun on the internal workings of this poor border guard? Let me continue….

"He's my boyfriend," my friend admitted after a slightly surprised pause.

The border guard leaned down and took another look at me. "What about her?"

WHAT ABOUT ME? The 'girlfriend' role is now taken. Did he expect me to admit I was the concubine? Sister wife? Imported bride? The girl they picked up on kijiji when advertising for a genuine 'Tarts and Vicars' weekend? I feel these should not have been the first 'go to' options here!

"She's …. a random friend," my friend volunteered.

…. well, I suppose 'random' beat 'imported concubine for an orgy'.

After that we were let through to collect the required visitor visa. I suspect the border guard went to fill in his application to theology college. 

[*] Technically, the license was in date, but showed my old Hamilton address, which meant lying about being a Canadian resident. It was also not possible to update said address without having a current national health card (OHIP). Go figure. 


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Penny matters

Canada has ditched the penny. 

This made significant economic sense but made many customers in 'Dollarama' very angry. 

The issue was that Canadian's smallest currancy denomination now costs more to produce than it's actually worth. That, and it really shouldn't be named after the subdivision of the British pound when the Canadian dollar is divided into cents. And it's not even accepted by vending machines.

In short, it was a bronze coloured abomination. 

So in May 2012, the penny birth rate dropped to zero and last month the Royal Canadian Mint stopped distributing them, although they remain legal tender for anyone who was struggling to find ways to spend them.

You might think that --in the face of there being no 1 cent coin-- all prices should be given in multiples of 5c. And you'd be right... except for the tax.

Like the USA, Canadian prices are shown minus the sales tax, which in Ontario is a very unworkable 13%. Quite why prices are shown without the tax included remained a perpetual mystery to me during my time in North America. I rather thought that the point of a price tag was to tell customers how much they had to pay.

But no. That idea was clearly ridiculous.

As a result of this last minute addition, prices are rung up in the till as normal, usually coming to a price that isn't 5c compatible. The cashier therefore rounds to the nearest 5c, with the argument being that it all works out in the end. With the maximum loss being 2c, most of the population are singularly unfazed...

… with the exception of the patrons at 'Dollarama'.

Admittedly, with a name that reflected the average price of goods in the store, it is perhaps less surprising that 2 cents is a rather bigger deal here than elsewhere in town. Still, I was taken aback when it took over 20 minutes to buy a tube of toothpaste because the two people in front of me were protesting over missing pennies. A maths lesson concerning rounding ensued. I give each patron 3/10

And declare that 50%. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Yellow boots of awesome

When I moved to Japan, I sold my car. This was a SAD EVENT. 

My car was a cheerful yellow sunbeam of a VW Beetle that was capable of lifting the mood on even the darkest of days. This was especially good since --at 10 years old-- it started to become the source of some of those dark days as it went through a series of faults that made the CAA regret ever offering me automobile support. 

Regardless of my newly acquired familiarity with tow trucks, I was sad to lose it. Or at least, sad not to replace it with a younger, sexier model.

Since Sapporo is a large city with good public transport, the practical need to own a car is low. That, and my practical ability to progress through the steps needed to buy a car in Japanese is also low. 

Then there is the snow, which makes locating your vehicle a genuine challenge once you turn your back for longer than about 6 hours. Combined with only a half-hearted attempt by the city to clear the roads, this results in some people giving up on their cars entirely in the winter months, letting them become snow covered car cakes in their driveway. Others set their children to shovelling out the vehicle, probably with the promise that they can play computer games when they finish. 

Around May. 

Since it would be deeply disappointing to spend six months digging out a car only to discover it wasn't yours and it was difficult to hot wire, I decided to walk to the city streets. Yet, there was something missing. Something bright and cheerful and … sunflowery.

Last weekend I found the solution in a Dr Martens store; something to still take me around the city in a shade of sun beaming yellow amusement. 

And yes, this is also the message I am giving my students. And the world. And you right now.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A letter to my version control software

OK, Mercurial, I feel the time as come for THE TALK. 

The talk about where I see my career going (grand slam of Nobel Prizes) and you see it going (down the tubes).  

Since I understand the best way to find common ground is by focussing on positive features of the other party, I will start by saying I do understand why you are widely used. Through your abilities, many people can work on the same computer code. They can make their own changes, share them with a community of code developers around the globe and in turn, implement other people's adjustments seamlessly into their version. In fact, for a large project --such as the two my research depends on-- I would go as far to say you are the essential component that prevents every one of us working on discrete, subtly different code sources.

Code version "elizabeth-170313-v5-old" never had that great a ring to it.

When I use you for the simplest of situations, we have no problems. 

Do you have anything nice to say about me, Mercurial?
Maybe that I'm persistent? Pointlessly so.
Maybe that I scream well when I fail? And that makes you laugh. 

Because this isn't the whole story, is it? When things get a little more complicated, you and I seem to break apart. We are like the estranged siblings who can manage to nod politely at one another during family gatherings so long as no one mentions the incident with the pancakes in 1982. Let's take a look at a recent example together, shall we?

I was adding a small new routine to the code. A fresh bit of programming that sat in its own file and never did anything to upset anyone. It was an innocent, Mercurial, you didn't have to treat it so badly. Initially you pretended to accept it, adding it to your register like Snow White's stepmother counted the princess within her family. Then I tried to merge with the main online code version and your cruel intent showed.

You refused to perform the action; your excuses involved branches, conflicts and heads. May I just say now that telling a lady she gave you 'multiple heads' is just not acceptable manners? Not to mention quite outside topic. You couldn't resolve, you couldn't update and the only option left to me was to 'force' my changes through which you proposed in a manner than suggested I'd regret it quicker than Voldemort after the birth of Harry Potter. 

I couldn't help but feel you weren't really trying. 

And I have to ask why. I wanted to love you. I felt we could work well together in the same way Lisa Simpson wanted to adore her substitute teacher. Yet, Lisa was despised by her teacher because she was thought too pretty. Is that your problem, Mercurial? Are you jealous because your execution command 'hg' reminds everyone your name is akin to a poisonous grey liquid metal? Or perhaps you just enjoyed the fact I gestured so rudely at my computer during these troubles that I was forced to leave the coffee shop in short order afterwards?

I liked that coffee shop and I may never be able to return.

I know other people do not have the same troubles with you and I feel bullied, tormented and terrorised by a piece of inanimate software.


It's not good. You make me feel like the Penny of my research family. And I don't even like cheesecake. 



DISCLAIMER: The problems the author has alluded to in this post reflect more on the difficulties with version controlling a large project than the Mercurial software. This is possibly supported by the Mercurial site which claims you can "Work easier. Work faster" but doesn't specify with respect to what. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Violence pays

Today, a vending machine paid me 50 cents to take a cherry flavoured vitamin water, but first I had to pay an assassin to fight it with a knife. 

This wasn't how I had planned to get a drink. Despite the many criticisms about salaries in academia, I had intended to take the conventional route of actually paying for my beverage. In this story, the part of the drink will be played by a bottle of flavoured water, which cost $2. 

Fun fact #1: $2 coins in Canada are called 'toonies'. $1 coins are 'loonies' which leads to some mildly offensive conversations. 

I took a toonie from my wallet and attempted to insert it into the machine's coin slot. I failed. Since this isn't usually the type of task that tests a person's skill level, I bent my knees and tried to look through the slot to see what was happening. Wedged in the narrow gap, I could just make out the metal edges of a quarter and a loonie. 

Fun fact #2: A 25 cent coin is called a 'quarter' in both the USA and Canada. In the USA, the reverse side of certain quarters depicts the US state in which it was made. According to wikipedia, the number of people attempting to collect a quarter from each of the 50 states is so high that it is the most successful numismatic program in history, giving the US government an extra $3 billion from people taking the coins out of circulation. 

Returning to the topic of our trapped currency, I gave an inward cry of exasperation. What kind of stupid person tries to shove two coins into the machine at once, causing it to jam? CLEARLY an undergraduate. Bet they were from biology. 

My first attempt to remedy this problem was just to force my own toonie into the machine, thereby dislodging the other coins. This proved fruitless since nothing moved.

Attempt #2 was to use my room keys to try and wiggle the coins free. This was slightly more productive and --after a few moments jiggling-- there was a clunk and the machine registered that I'd paid it 25 cents. What was odd, however, was that the 25 cent piece I could see wedged against the loonie had not moved. 

Exactly how much money was there trapped in this tiny gap?!

What sort of person keeps feeding a machine money without reporting a fault like this?!

At that moment a graduate student from my department appeared, saw my dilemma and announced the solution was paper. Apparently, this was not a new issue. He disappeared to return holding up a folded sheet with which he attempted the same trick I had with my keys. 

Nothing happened. Today's problem was serious. 

Fortunately, it transpired any good theoretical astrophysics student would come armed to his office with an all-in-one knife tool kit. Feeling that group meetings had changed since my day, I watched in amazement as steadily larger knifes were used in ways that would censor this post if described. Finally the machine capitulated (though you'll prove nothing in court because torture makes an unreliable witness). With a second series of clunks, two quarters, a toonie and a loonie fell into the machine's change dispenser. I paid my knife assassin off with a loonie (grad students come cheap) and inserted the toonie back into the cleared coin slot. 

 Where it gets stuck.

A quick stabbing later and I had my beverage plus 50 cents profit. As I walked away down the corridor, I thought about calling the machine maintenance number and reporting the problem.

Still thinking. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Pigs are no fun!

Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, NY, prides itself on welcoming worshippers from all walks of life. This extends most particularly to its acceptance (and indeed performance) of gay marriage and its widely international congregation, a significant fraction of whom are not fluent English speakers. The diversity of the church members was celebrated at the beginning of the service where we exchanged a 'Good morning' with the paster in Mandarin (Zao Shang Hao), French (Bonjour), Burmese (Ming Gulava), Chin (Na Dam Ma), Spanish (Buenos Dias), Karen (Gaw Ler Gay), Kerenni (Teh Rya Beh Thee) and Nepalese (Namaste).

… And incase anyone like me was forced to reach for google after looking at that list, Karen and Kerenni are spoken by a group of people living in the south of Berma. Berma shares a border with China, Thailand, India, Laos and Bangladesh. It is not infeasible I had to also check that second fact. 

However, I couldn't help thinking --as I scanned the pews-- that this highly diverse greeting was wasted on the people around me who were predominantly white American. Was this a case of laying the table and hoping that the well known Kerenni speakers of northern New York state pour in? I'd noticed there were a lot of churches in Rochester, but this niche seemed a bit of a long shot. 

But by the time we were half an hour in, the demographic had changed; families with black hair, brown hair, blonde hair and red hair, of all different ages and tones of skin had filled out the pews. Ideas of punctuality (and perhaps the driving of the church bus) appeared to vary as vastly as language choice. In fact I was to later learn that this congregation was smaller than usual; daylight saving does nobody any favours but at least most of the absent had the excuse of language. Afterall, the idea there might be a Government backed mandate to STEAL AN HOUR OF YOUR LIFE in March is hard to anticipate.

… is that not how it works? Felt like it this morning.

With the pastor announcing three times that the adult education class on race and ethnicity would begin promptly at 11:30 that morning, one had to conclude start times were problematically open to interpretation. A fact that extended to the publication of the notice sheet which had the same class listed as 11:45 pm. 

Quite aside from that, may I say right now that Burmese children, with their Asian black hair and eyes and tanned skin, are frankly adorable? This sentiment was probably reinforced (if not created) by the fact they arrived late and then left shortly afterwards to go to Sunday School elsewhere in the church. Before they departed, the associate pastor led the 'Children's Worship' whose topic was the same as the main sermon; The Prodigal Son.

As the children confirmed, this parable is well known. A feckless whelp of a boy demands his inheritance from his father and disappears off to a life of partying (activity provided by the child audience; probably from one who was anticipating turning 4 years old real soon). Having spent all his cash in an irresponsible and stupid fashion, the son is forced to suck up his own mistakes and work on a pig farm for scraps of food he barely deserves.

and PIGS ARE NO FUN! (Helpful calibration point provided during the children's sermon incase anyone thought that did sound rather good)

Finally acknowledging that he was a idiotic twerp, the boy returns home to beg for work on his father's farm as a servant. Upon seeing the worthless spawn who had left him for dead for a life of debauchery, the father runs out to greet him, demands his servants hold a huge party (clearly knowing his son's perchance for such activities), dress him in robes and rings and kill the fatted calf. The older son who has experienced no such party life style is exceedingly pissed off and gets fobbed off by the promise of being able to inherit his father's hard working lifestyle when he dies. 

The pastor asked us all who we identified with more: the piggy scum of a prodigal son, the father or the older sibling. (Slight paraphrasing in progress.)

In case anyone was in any doubt based on my re-telling of this famous religious story, I SYMPATHISE WITH THE OLDER SIBLING.

Slapping it into the context of the day, Jesus told this story as a mirror to the attitude of the religious leaders who were angry that Jesus was hanging with the sinners of the town for dinner. 

Prior to this morning, I had never had much sympathy with those said religious bods. They seemed a stuffy bunch, more interested in bashing scrolls that actually applying any of the good that they preached. However, having thought the matter through carefully in right-hand side of the penultimate pew, I realised THEY HAVE EVERY REASON TO BE ANNOYED!

Let's take a step back and assess the situation: these people have dedicated their EVERY WAKING MINUTE to God. They have given up career plans of ballet dancing, Formula One racing and pimping for one of fasting, studying-without-macbooks and uncomfortable hair growth.

Then MIRACLE UPON MIRACLE! It all pays off! The promised Son of God appears not only in their lifetime, but right there in their town! 

Then he goes and hangs out with the scum who have just been making like Uncle Scrooge of Ducktails in his money bath. 


TEAM OLDER SON. I'm getting a tee-shirt made up. 

Having thoroughly digested the sermon, I paused on my way out of the church to use the bathroom. Pinned on the wall of the cubicle was a notice that not only demonstrated the problems with a congregation with a language barrier but utilised a technique familiar with my own teaching in Japan: Use pictures. Keep the words few and simple. No. In. That goes for nappies and possibly religious messages. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Keep calm and eat a teacup pig

 The problem with having a prolonged break from blogging is … how do you restart? Should you wait for an occasion SO MOMENTOUS that even an illiterate teacup pig would find a way to communicate it to the world:


 (Just so we're clear that comment was entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to real events, occurring in any country, is purely coincidental.)

 Or should you just pick up from an entirely random point :



(That comment was rather less fictitious and aren't you all glad I didn't decide to blog that?)

After a few false starts, I have picked a moment when I'm sitting in a gay and lesbian friendly coffee shop in Rochester, USA. Its name, 'Equal Grounds', is testament to their ideology, although they stress this just applies to people, not to coffees, since they have an extensive menu of drinks that includes their own blend. The artsy interior, huge flat screen fireplace and funky mugs for the almond steamer I ordered are enough to reinvigorate even the (blogging) dead. 

Back in Japan, the teaching year has finished (the undergraduate year runs April to mid-February) and marks the end of my first year as a faculty member! Frankly, that alone puts any talk of Justin Bieber's sextuplets in the shade. It should have resulted in the MOST GLITZY BLOG POST OF ALL TIME, but I confused my laptop with a teddybear and went to sleep. 

Teddybear laptops. That's where we were at, people. 

Then there came a new dawn and I  remembered my real job was a researcher. Whereupon, I promptly took off back to Canada to write up projects with my old institute that I'd been treating as the unmentionable Frankenstein monster of an unloved bastard teacup pig for the last 12 months. 

Then I crossed the border and found a coffee shop.