Things That Go Bump In The Night

I sometimes refer to myself as a Professional Dilettante. One of the many jobs I have had was driving a patrol car on the night shift for the Commissionaires. I drove from site to site, checked that private property was secure, patrolled the Lower Causeway and the wharfs around the Inner Harbour in Victoria, closed and opened facilities in city parks, and did walkthroughs of construction sites. All of this in the dark during winter storms. I would get wet and stay wet. The heater in the car only served to make my clothes steam and fog up the windows. Also, in BC security guards are not (or were not) allowed to carry any flashlight larger than three-cells. (A three-cell flashlight holds three batteries. A four-cell holds four. And so on.) The reasoning seemed to be that if we had anything larger, we’d use it to beat people. We carried bulk packages of batteries in our cars as a three-cell light had a better than even chance of running out of juice before an eight hour shift was finished. This was just before large LED flashlights with longer battery lives were common.

One of the construction sites on my beat was the Crystal Garden. The Crystal Garden was a botanical garden, tea room, and conference site named after the original Crystal Pool which was the original use of the building. The Crystal Pool in turn was named for its glass roof. At the time it was built, it was the largest indoor salt water pool in the British Empire. A good view of the glass roof can be seen at the Provincial Capital Commission’s website, where you can also read about the history of the building. When I was crawling around inside night after night, the Crystal Garden had been forced to close after the Provincial Capital Commission said they could no longer collect rent from the other tenants in the building. It was being re-purposed as The BC Experience. It was a brief, bad experience, and the building is now part of the Victoria Conference Centre.

My route through the building was to climb the fire escape at the rear and enter at the upper balcony. With the tarp over the roof and safety paper over many of the horizontal windows, which are above the level of the street lights in any event, it was very dark inside. My little three-cell Maglight was the strongest source of light, and it often flickered and failed. The building was an empty space from the peak of the roof to the bottom of the empty pool with balconies around the sides. This space was filled with a ring of scaffolding which changed every night as work progressed on the roof. On the balconies, new free-standing walls and rooms appeared creating new nooks and blind spots. Hundreds of glass panes waiting to be installed were stacked all around, reflecting my light and my image. Construction workers left coats draped over the paint shelves of six-foot stepladders and hard hats on the top steps. As I shone my light around the gloom, human sized and shaped figures loomed. Winter storms lashed and the windows and the tarp. When the wind shifted to a certain direction, the whole giant tarp cracked with a boom like a thunderclap directly overhead. It was spooky.

After circling the upper balcony, I climbed the scaffolding to check below the roof peak— both for intruders and for damage from the storms. Then it was down to the lower balcony to check all the side rooms, down both grand staircases to check the doors to the street. The building was constructed in the ’20s as a grand public palace. The architecture was very impressive, very grand, and—in the dark in a dilapidated state—spooky. The building echoed with the storms and street noise.

After checking all the crannies of the lower balcony, I climbed through the scaffolding again and down into the bottom of the pool. The pool itself was imposing. Almost Olympic size, and clear space almost to the peak of the roof, it felt much larger in the dark when you could tell it was large and indoors but couldn’t see two walls at once. This was also where I ran into the most rats. In the day they hid in the interstitial spaces, but at night they came into the pool to find sandwiches and other tidbits the construction workers dropped from above.

My route took me across the pool to a passageway cut through the end when the gardens were built and into the basement spaces. The pool is a separate structure from the building. There is a space between the pool basin and the exterior walls. I checked that space, the boiler room, maintenance and storage rooms, and the old animal pens from the building’s time as a botanical garden. Finally, I would exit via the basement door, check the construction yard, and return to my car. Throughout my whole patrol—with dressed ladders, reflections in random places, storm and street noise—I was always convinced there was someone else in the building with me. One night there was.

One of the contractors had hired another security company without telling anyone. As I did my checks, my usual paranoia was gradually replaced by the absolute certainty that someone else was in the building with me. For reals. As a security guard, your goal is not to surprise anyone, nor sneak up on them. Let them know you’re there. Let them know they aren’t supposed to be there. Why he didn’t answer my calls, I don’t know. I assume he was an idiot. Answer when someone calls out “Security! Identify yourself.” Especially when you’re security yourself. Eventually I spotted him while we were more than ten meters apart, so a panicked flailing of flashlights was avoided.

Still, I think I could have taken him. Even though he was cheating and had a four-cell flashlight.


Transparent Technologies

Before we start today, I’d like you all to find five instances of amazing technology within reach of you right now. I’ll wait.

I’ll bet none of you thought of paper and pencil. Paper and pencil (or pen and paper) is an example of what I call transparent technology. Someone way smarter than me coined the phrase. I can’t remember at the moment whom I stole it from. It refers to technology so ubiquitous that we aren’t even aware of it. Think about the humble paper and pencil. I can pick up a pencil and write on a piece of paper, “Mary, please pick up eggs, butter, & milk.” Mary comes home, sees the note, and goes to the store to buy eggs, butter, & milk. I have communicated complex desires across space and time without Mary and I ever having to be within earshot of each other. That is abso-frickin-lutely amazing. Yes your snazzy cell phone can do the same. So can your state-of-the-art computer with its email and instant messaging. But paper and pencil could do it first.

I can go to the library and read dead peoples’ thoughts. Okay, you say, but that isn’t two-way communication. I ask all of you who have ever worked in a group environment, been married, or had parents, siblings, or children, how much communication is two-way? Paper and pencil are certainly capable of two-way communication: letters, notes in class, dueling articles in journals, graffiti on a bathroom wall. (Okay, the last isn’t on paper, but it could be if paper in bathroom stalls wasn’t in such danger of being appropriated for other uses.)

My examples so far have involved the alphabet, another transparent technology. Symbolism seems innate to the human condition, the earliest evidence we have of modern human brains are paintings in Chauvet Cave from some 35,000 years ago. While these paintings are representational, they are not photo-realistic. They are symbolic. All cultures throughout history have had symbolic art forms. Children given a box of crayons (more transparent technology) draw a symbol of their house and symbols of their parents. The stick figure symbol for a human seems ubiquitous through time and space. The two dots and a line symbol for a human face seems to actually be how we perceive faces. Alphabets, however, are symbolism on steroids—an arbitrary and abstract set of symbols that allow us to express with perfect clarity anything we can say. Try drawing, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” It would take you awhile and be subject to misinterpretation. Even, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” would give you trouble to draw out in pictures. Forget “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

Astounding as alphabets are, paper and pencil do not require them to be amazing. Give me paper and pencil but no alphabet: I can still sketch a map, design a contraption, draw dirty pictures. (I wouldn’t be the first. Look at some of those 35,000 year old cave paintings.) I don’t even need paper, or a pencil. Give me a stick and some soft ground, or a burnt stick and a hard surface, and I can plan, daydream, and communicate. If I draw three stick figures with their heads falling off, anyone coming along at any time later that the image is still legible (which could be thousands of years) would understand the message is something about danger.

Paper and pencil—a transparent technology.

I’ll give you a moment to be impressed.


Public Service Unions

Unions are an essential factor in keeping our economy healthy. Capitalists and workers are inseparable partners in producing wealth. Capitalists provided the means. Workers provide the muscle. Collective bargaining and the ability to strike embodied in unions protect the workers’ position as partners in whatever the industry is. Prior to unions, capitalists as a group proved very willing to treat workers as an expendable resource, mistreating and exploiting them to the enrichment of individual capitalists but the detriment of the common economy. Unions, of course, are composed of individuals with strengths, weaknesses and vices. Some unions overreach. Some are abusive. Some are more detrimental to their industry and the economy than they are beneficial to their members. When I was seventeen and working for Kentucky Fried Chicken, I was a member of the American Steelworkers Union because their union had bought our union. How does that make sense? When the steelworks went on strike, they put a picket line around the KFC where I worked. Other than that humorous example, I won’t name any examples of bad unions. That’s not this week’s topic. I want to talk about public service unions.

The union model has been so effective strengthening our economy and our society that we have applied it over and over, even to areas where it begins to break down such as public service. When steelworkers go on strike, the steel mill owner loses money. It is to his advantage to sit down with the workers and hammer out a deal. Similarly, when the workers are on strike, they aren’t getting paid (except out of a limited strike fund maintained by the union) so it is to their advantage to sit down with the owner and hammer out a deal. Public service workers to not directly produce wealth. They provide a service to the public. Some of these services are so critical we can’t do without them for even one day. Thus police, fire fighters, paramedics, hospital workers, and some infrastructure workers are branded essential services and forbidden to strike. I agree. I wouldn’t want my local police or fire department to go on strike. Essential service workers can still strike by not drawing pay and refusing to wear their uniforms, but they still have to provide the service. They rely on shame to bring the government to the bargaining table. Governments do not always respond to shame. The BC Paramedics went on strike and stopped wearing their uniforms. The government got a court ruling that wearing uniforms on duty was a public safety issue. The paramedics put their uniforms back on and put “ON STRIKE” decals on their ambulances. The government told them they weren’t allowed to do that because they just weren’t, and the government was going to pass a law forbidding it. The strength of unions is in the power to strike. When that power is taken away, the strength of unions is broken.

Specifically, the strength of unions is in the power of strikes to disrupt the production of wealth. If the workers do not produce wealth for the owner (government), the strength of unions is broken even if the right to strike remains. BC teachers have been working to rule since September. They have been doing everything required by their contracts with the government but have been withholding volunteer service that allows extra-curricular activities. The teachers are getting paid. Students are getting the required education. Students and parents are annoyed by the lack of optional services we all take for granted as part of the school package. Teachers and the government have been the target of pressure from an annoyed public to sort things out and get back to normal. In six months nothing has happened to resolve the dispute. The government is not inconvenienced in the least by the job action. There have been a few nasty editorials, but the BC Government is used to people saying bad things about them—and the teachers have been catching flak, too.

A three-day walkout is imminent; a mini-strike. What happens if the teachers do go on strike? The teachers stop getting paid. They will receive a portion of their usual pay from a union strike fund in exchange for serving time on the picket line. This fund is not limitless. Students will have nowhere to go during the day. Many families will be disrupted as a working parent will either have to stay home or pay for care. People will yell and scream at the government and the teachers. The government will save baskets of money by not having to pay the teachers or heat or light the schools and will be handed the lovely talking point, “The teachers say they value education, but they’ve walked out of the classroom. We didn’t close the schools.” The power of the strike is negated. The strength of unions is broken.

By protecting workers from exploitative employers, unions strengthen our economy and society. The strength of unions is founded in the power of strikes to disrupt the production of wealth. When there is no production of wealth to disrupt, the power of the strike is negated and the strength of unions fails. A strong society needs lots of happy, healthy, competent, and prosperous teachers, policemen, fire fighters, paramedics, nurses, and other public service employees. Some bright spark needs to come up with a mechanism that allows these essential members of our community to make an irrefutable claim to partnership with the government employer the same way the union strike enabled wealth producing workers to claim their rightful partnership with capitalists.

Get to it.


Star Trek Captains

[Blogger’s note: Dammit, I did it again, and immediately after noticing I did it the first time. Here’s last week’s. This week’s at 00:30.]

I like Star Trek. It is an enjoyable show. I’ve seen most of the episodes of TOS, TNG, DS9, VOY and ENT. I’ve seen all the movies. I’ve read several novels, quite a few technical manuals, several scripts, and a few “making of” books. I own three role-playing games based on Star Trek. I am familiar with the universe. I tend to annoy Trekkies, however, as I point out continuity errors, logic flaws, plot holes, and weak characterization. On one occasion I had one woman in tears and another throwing things at me because I said Starfleet would never consider Riker for command after he refused three offers as one of the prime requirements for command is to not be afraid of taking command. Trekkies are weird, and I’m a bit of a bastard. So, at risk of offending Trekkies with my answers, let’s consider one of the perennial questions of Star Trek. Which captain would you choose to serve under?

Only top billed captains will be considered, no guests stars and no regulars acting in command. We just don’t see enough of them in action to make a fair judgement.

Janeway:
Nope. Nuh-uh. No way. Kate Mulgrew has said in an interview that based on seven seasons of scripts, she thinks Janeway is insane. I agree. It’s not that she’s callous or blood thirsty or over trusting or paranoid or naive or generous. It’s that she’s all of these things. Her personality and character are all over the map. She takes situational ethics so far it’s situational sanity. She’s radically inconsistent. Her two stablest traits are blatant favoritism and bad decisions.

Janeway plucked Paris out of prison, gave him a temporary brevet rank of lieutenant j.g. He broke a lot of rules. He endangered the ship and crew. He never really got the hang of “Tom Paris isn’t the most important thing in the universe”. Over the course of the series she busted him and promoted him. Meanwhile, Ensign Harry Kim did his job and did it well. On several occasions he performed above the call of duty. But his wasn’t Janeywaney’s pretty boy, so he remained an ensign. (Let’s not even mention Seven of Nine.)

Season 1, Episode 1, “The Caretaker”: At the end of the episode, Janeway had the opportunity to take the survivors of her crew and the Maquis crew home. No fuss, no bother. Instead she blew up the Caretaker array.

First, her reason for blowing it up is gobbledygook:
TUVOK: Wouldn’t intervening and destroying the array violate the Prime Directive?
JANEWAY: Not at all. By choosing not to destroy the array we would be intervening and thus violating the Prime Directive.
TUVOK: Lady, what are you smoking?
The Prime Directive is one of the stupidest, impractical and most immoral ideas in science-fiction history (I can hear the Trekkies hyperventilating) and none of the captains were consistent in applying it, but Janeway was the queen of Prime Directive schizophrenia. “The Prime Directive requires me to abandon the aliens who helped my crew escape to a horrible fate.” “The Prime Directive requires me to leave any captured crew members who don’t appear in the opening credits to torture and slow, painful death.” “The Prime Directive requires me to wipe out all sentient life on this planet because they said something nasty about my girlfriend.” And it didn’t even apply in “Caretaker”. The Kazon are a warp-capable culture.

Second, leave and blow it up, you idiot. You had photon torpedo warheads. You had timing devices built into those warheads. You had a transporter. Strap one of your magical tricorders to a photon head. Set the whole thing to go off five minutes after it detects it has been transported. Transport it. Flip back home. Boom. You’re spared your “Year of Hell” and we’re spared seven years of hell.

Picard:
Picard made some moving, very long speeches on the sanctity of all life as his crew was being slaughtered. Shoot back, you moron! Or get the hell out of there. I’d rather not serve under a captain who is obsessed with the philosophical implications of my entrails being smeared across the bulkhead by the alien of the week. Picard is also probably #2 on the Prime Directive schizoid list.

Archer:
Archer was a man out of his depth. To be fair, his whole crew, his whole planet, was out of their depth. He was willing to step back and review options. He stood by his crew and fought for them, but if he was outmatched he was willing to run away, get bigger guns, and come back. He stayed on mission. I would be happy to serve under Archer.

Kirk:
Kirk had a ridiculously high casualty rate. His command style could border on reckless, but he stood by his people and did not needlessly risk them (usually). He wasn’t as overmatched by the galaxy as Archer. He cared for his ship, his crew, his mission, and innocents. In “The Devil in the Dark” he deployed his crew to protect the innocent miners. When he realized what the real situation was, he switched to protecting the innocent horta and brokered a compromise. He was always willing to take action, but was capable of backing off to avoid needless escalation. Needful escalation was his bread and butter. Since I dinged Janeway and Picard for being inconsistent about the Prime Directive, I expect Trekkies are jumping up and down in their seats yelling that Kirk violated the Prime Directive all the time. Yep. But he was a lot more consistent about it.
VILLAIN OF THE WEEK (on screen): Ha-ha, Kirk! You cannot interfere. Your precious Prime Directive forbids it.
KIRK: That’s true. Mr Sulu, blow that bastard out of the sky.

Kirk seems to have had much the same opinion of the Prime Directive as I do. I would be happy to serve under Kirk, but not in a red shirt.

Sisko:
Competent, dedicated to his people, gets the job done: Sisko has all the good qualities of Kirk with a lower casualty rate. (Yes, yes. The Dominion War. I’m talking about missions he led.) He’s also more diplomatic and people-smart than Kirk. (Or maybe Kirk never had to display those qualities to the same degree.) Sisko is my first choice of commanding officer.


Snapshots

[Blogger’s Note: When using the schedule function, it helps to enter the correct date. Here is last week’s post.]

We’ve all been in the situation. A friend, family member, or colleague has been on a vacation, they whip out the snapshots to show you, and they are awful. Boring. You’re trapped. Even people who have never picked up a camera suffer through this. It isn’t that the traveling shutterbug is oblivious. She knows very well what a bad photograph is. When she goes over to her brother-in-law’s place, she has to suffer through his boring snapshots. The problem is the proud traveler isn’t seeing what the rest of us are seeing. She has seen something that moves her—a beautiful vista, an impressive building, her child singing beautifully in the school pageant—and she has held up her camera and pressed a button. When she looks at the snapshot later, she is reminded of what she saw and the feelings she had at the time. The rest of us see a badly framed photograph of random scenery, usually with Martha in the foreground cut off at the knees, kilted off vertical, with black splotches where eyes should be, and a pole growing out of her head.

Some of this can be avoided by following a few of the basic rules of composition:

  • Avoid busy corners.
  • Have one subject.
  • If Martha is in the picture, show Martha (including her eyes).
  • If Martha isn’t in the picture, don’t show Martha.
  • Don’t have poles growing out of people’s heads.

The more fundamental problem is a lack of understanding that humans and cameras see differently. We see with our brains. Cameras see with film or sensors.

When you point your camera at something and push the button, the camera is not recording what you saw. The camera is recording the scene in its own way. The human eye can see a greater range of dark to light at the same time. The area between featureless shadows and featureless highlights is called dynamic range. Depending on lighting conditions and the individual person and camera, the human eye can have a dynamic range up to three times greater. Imagine you are standing in a windowed room on a sunny day. You can see all the detail in the room and all the detail outside the window. A snapshot would either have the window blown out to white or the interior of the room in deep shadow. You can work around this with High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging which involves taking three or more exposures for shadows, midtones, and highlights and combining them in post processing, but that isn’t a trick you carry around all the time. The camera is going to darken shadows and lighten highlights compared to what your eye sees. You could avoid scenes with a wide range of light values, or you can work with it—make the shadows or highlights or both part of the composition. Above all, be aware of it.

The second major difference in how cameras see differently than we do is focus. We have a circle of interest. A small area of our vision is high detail. The rest is a continuous stream of lower resolution information with details filled in by the brain with data from when those peripheral areas were in the circle of interest. We also have a focal distance and binocular vision. Usually these are linked, but they can operate independently as when you stare at a chain link fence or stucco patterns. It is very disorienting. Cameras have a focal distance, too, but they have a focal plane, not a circle of interest. Everything a certain distance from the camera is in focus. Whereas we with our circle of interest see one thing clearly, a camera sees that thing and everything else at the focal distance with the same clarity. If you want only your subject in focus, you must isolate it on the focal plane. Nothing else can be the same distance from the camera. The tiny little point-and-shoot pocket cameras have an additional problem here. They are marvelous feats of engineering and take darn good pictures. I won’t say anything against them. But they do have limits imposed by the physics of light bouncing around in those very short lenses. They always have a deep depth of field. Wherever you set your focal distance, there will be a lot in focus in front and behind.

Armed with the knowledge that cameras and humans see differently, and with the basic rules of composition, we can take pictures that might not bore our audience so intensely. Don’t hold your camera in front of you, push the button, and expect it to record what moved you to take the picture. There is a reason you want to take the picture. What is that reason? Fix it in your mind and take a picture of the reason.

I can’t tell you how many snapshots of churches I’ve been shown and been told how this church was really amazing, how it dominated the square, how it soared to the heavens. Sorry. It doesn’t. It’s a small picture of building. The building looks rather small because the picture is small. And the finial is chopped off, so it can hardly be said to soar. If you want to take a picture of a church because you were impressed by how it soared above you, walking back until you can get (almost) the whole thing in frame is going about it literally the wrong way. Turn around. Walk up to the church. Point the camera up. Get that sucker looming. Take a picture of thrusting to the sky. And don’t chop off the finials. You want to show me the amazing detail in the sculptures? A 3×5 snapshot of the whole facade from a mile away isn’t going to impress. Again, walk up and take a picture of the detail.

You want to take a snapshot of a busy market square because you are impressed by the hustle and bustle. There are lots of ways to take a picture of hustle or bustle. You could try an unusual angle; get low, tilt the camera to one side, or both. Perhaps the most straightforward method is to play with time. Your camera will tell you the fastest shutter speed it can use in the conditions to get a nice, balanced image. There is also the slowest shutter speed you can hold the camera steady enough to get crisp images of static elements such as buildings. This second speed is almost always slower than the first. Between these two shutter speeds lie hustle and bustle. Decrease your shutter speed from the fastest possible to the slowest possible and people and other moving objects start to blur with motion. Slower shutter, more motion blur. Objects moving faster will blur more. Objects closer to the camera will blur more because they have greater apparent motion. This method is also very good for flowing water: rapids, waterfalls, crashing waves, fountains, all look more dynamic with a little motion blur.

Maybe it is the colours of the market that impress you. So take a picture of the colours. Frame your picture to capture the richness and variety of colour and exclude other elements that might distract from the colours being the subject. Think, why are you taking this photo? What are you going to tell people when you show them the photo? Take a picture of that. If you have to take a dozen pictures to capture different aspects of the marketplace that struck you, do so. Make each picture a good picture of one aspect, one thing that moved you.

How about that snapshot of Don in the parade with his school’s marching band? First, do you want a photo of Don’s marching band or Don in the marching band. You can get great photos of either, but not at the same time. A photo of Don’s marching band focuses on the band, the group, the formation. A photo of Don in the marching band focuses on Don. You can do this by literally having Don in focus and the rest not, but as mentioned above this can be difficult to impossible with small point-and-shoot cameras. Another way to focus on Don is to capture him doing something different than the rest of the band. Perhaps he is the only one playing. Even easier, have him and only him looking towards the camera. The obvious way to get Don to look towards the camera is to call out, “Donny!” as the band marches past. Unfortunately he’ll probably be so embarrassed by this that he’ll look away. Not the effect you wanted. Instead slip some random hot girl in the crowd five or ten bucks to yell, “Donny!” He’ll look.

Little Suzie’s school pageant is a similar challenge. Do you want to show the pageant or Suzie? Either is great, but, if you’re taking a picture of the pageant, take a picture of some clear aspect of the pageant. Like the bustling or colourful marketplace above, isolate and capture what drew you to the subject. If you have a good DVD player, step through some movie scenes frame by frame. Or, if you have a camera that can take rapid fire exposures, capture some action and look at the resulting shots. You will see that most randomly selected moments are bland. Most pictures of people throwing baseballs show either the furthest backward extent of the windup or the moment of release. These are the moments that convey power. A great many jumping dance shots show either the launch or the top of the arc. Not many show the landing. The landing, captured in a split second, doesn’t convey power and grace as clearly as the launch or apogee. Try to capture a moment of the pageant that moves you.

To take a photo of Suzie in the pageant, isolate her like you did Don in the marching band. Take the photo when she is literally in the spotlight. Or isolate her with focus or gesture or even time. Is there a moment when she is standing still while everyone else is moving? Slow down your shutter a bit and shoot. Or, if she’s moving and you are up to it, slow down the shutter and pan with her. She’ll be sharp in a field of motion blur.

So, if you insist on showing me or other innocents your snapshots, please don’t. Instead take pictures of whatever motivated you to raise the camera and press the button. Thank you in advance.

An imposing building: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gotchan/4844316591/

Sculpture on a building: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gotchan/4900041347/

Hustle: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gotchan/5868343847/

Bustle: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gotchan/5871727201/

Fountain: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gotchan/4844932104/

A colourful market: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gotchan/4825613107/

An event: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gotchan/4912778796/

A focus isolated subject: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gotchan/4841492553/

A gesture isolated subject: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gotchan/4842152484/

Panning (on face) to define subject: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gotchan/4842301746/


Girl(friend)s

Valentine’s Day is coming up. Let’s talk about girls.

As little children, we give Valentine cards to our mothers or fathers. The bolder among us give Valentines to our favourite babysitters. In school we give Valentines to every kid in the class, by mandate. As we get older, we find ways to favour our special Valentines. We give them fancier cards, or deliver them by hand, or give extra Valentines away from the leveling eye of the teacher. A few years more and the space in “girl friend” begins to shrink and the wonderful compound girlfriend arises. There is that special girl you snuggle with at parties, learn to dance with, and practice kissing with. For me it was the girl around the corner and through the properties between the two dead end streets. Michelle had been a neighbour since first grade. In my barely prepubescent mind, she was changing from best girl friend to either best girl or girlfriend. Aside from the snuggling and practice kissing, we went on dates, which at our age were limited to chaperoned community events at parks or rec centres. She had an annoying habit on these outings of making dates with boys from other neighbourhoods. I guess I wasn’t a very good kisser.

In junior high the stakes rack up a notch. Everyone still plays at relationships, but the boys are getting fuzzy and the girls are getting bumpy. Hormones add new dimensions to the play, and the merging of schools adds many more players. The default school for my neighbourhood had a reputation for being tough. Today I realize that just meant that there were some kids from other social classes mixed in. About half of my classmates from elementary school went instead to private schools or public schools in tonier neighbourhoods. I went to the diverse, “tough” school and met lots of new girls. Boys, too.

Elena was a cute girl of Portuguese descent, small and dark. She had olive skin, jet black hair, and deep brown eyes. She had a hooked nose which I thought was attractive. She was probably too young to be sultry, and I was too young to know what sultry meant, but I was interested. Elena had a cousin Joey. Joey was our age, but was one of those boys who start shaving in kindergarten. By lunch period he had a five o’clock shadow. He was also a bodybuilder and was ripped at thirteen. He could do the flexed arm hang until the gym teachers got fed up and told him to get down because we had to move on to other things. There were rumours he did ‘roids. I knew Joey to see him, but I didn’t have much to do with him. He hung out with the tough kids behind the gym. One day in metal shop he stalked over to me and asked if I thought Elena was pretty. I didn’t want to get beaten up, so I assured him that she was a pretty girl but I had no interest in her and wouldn’t make any trouble. I avoided her afterward. Twelve years later I was having a dream in which these events replayed and woke up with a start of revelation. Elena had asked Joey to find out if I liked her. Arrrgh.

While avoiding Elena so Joey wouldn’t beat me up (remember, I wouldn’t figure it out for another twelve years) I was playing at boyfriend/girlfriend with Margaret. A pretty girl at the coltish stage many girls have when they are thin and long limbed for their height, she was clever and sweet. Peer pressure at that age to have a girlfriend or a boyfriend is strong. So this girl I liked became my designated girlfriend. I did like her, but I thought much more about another of our classmates in her circle of girlfriends—more primal thoughts, the first stirrings of what was missing in all our play acting. Andrea was small and dark. (Is this a trend, dear reader?) Very quiet but fearsomely smart, she had a bit of snark in her. Our school had a special day one year—might have been Valentine’s Day, might not—on which the girls all wore paper hearts. If a girl spoke to a boy, she had to give him her heart. Some boys were running around the school collecting dozens of hearts. I wasn’t taking much of an interest in proceedings; thought it stupid then, think it stupid now. At lunchtime, Andrea came up to me in the hall and asked about a class assignment. I answered and she walked away. A classmate standing nearby, another of the circle of girlfriends that included Andrea and Margaret, starting freaking out at me. Andrea had talked to me. I was supposed to get her heart. I chased Andrea down and demanded her heart as she had spoken to me. She told me she had not spoken to me. I pointed out that she was talking to me know, so that counted. No, she told me, she wasn’t speaking to me now. I’m slow, but not stupid. Either she wanted to give her heart to me because she liked me, or she wanted to get rid of her heart so she could talk and chose me to give it to. Either way, she was hurt and angry I spurned her. I was in the cellar of the doghouse and had probably blown my chance at having a truly excellent girlfriend. Sorry, Andrea.

The whole Margaret/Andrea situation illustrates a problem I continue to have. Girls (or more properly at my stage of life, women) tend to come in pairs. You can only ask out one girl (or woman) of any pair. No matter how smooth you are, asking the second out after the first turns you down always has a whiff of “Your hotter friend said no, so how about it?” Not cool. But which one to ask out? I have such a horrible track record with this choice, not just getting shot down but getting accepted and later regretting it, I’m more or less paralyzed by indecision. I try dropping hints that if either of them were to ask me out, I’d be interested. I try the old junior high trick of getting a third party to sniff out if either of them are interested. (I am careful not to pick go betweens as intimidating as cousin Joey.) None of it works.

High school wasn’t really a big step forward for me in dating. I was the only person from my junior high to go to my high school (that year, a couple followed the next year) and started over with a brand new group of people. The school had its pod of glamour girls, but the prettiest girls were in the advanced program with me. This was the era of Cindy Lauper, Blondie, and Pat Benatar. The girls in my school wore terry cloth harem pants and sweatshirts. I admit feeling slightly cheated. I had many close girl friends, but I didn’t have a girlfriend. I don’t think. My best friend was a girl and we spent a lot of time together. After I got my license we would drive down to the Dallas Road cliffs and lie on a blanket looking at the moon. It was nice. I didn’t go to many school dances in high school because the school was way on the other side of town from my house, and, frankly, school dances are boring. At one event, the lovely and talented Sheila dedicated The Beatles’ Nowhere Man to me.

At sixteen I took a two week school trip to France. One night in Normandy, I was hurrying back to our hotel to make curfew when I ran into, almost literally, a local girl my age in the street by the hotel. She had seen our group around town and was curious who we were. My French was not very good, nor was her English. I spoke in French and she spoke in English. This kept conversation at a pace we could both understand. We talked and talked and talked. At one point our teacher chaperone stuck his head out the hotel door and looked around. He spotted me and this girl leaning against a nearby building. I guess he thought I was getting a cultural experience, because he vanished back into the hotel without saying anything. We kept talking. Eventually she had to leave and gave me a kiss goodnight. Tee hee hee. She smelled nice.

When I moved to Japan I had to not only learn a new language but a whole new set of mores. What phrases are acceptable in different relationships? How does the meaning of common expressions change based on relationships? What physical contact is acceptable when, and what do different types of contact mean? It is very easy to get into trouble by saying the wrong thing, engaging in inappropriate touching, or misinterpreting the other person’s intentions. Apparently it is also possible to inadvertently profess your undying love to a stranger met on a dark park path when what you are trying to do is extricate yourself gracefully. That might have been a one-off.

In Japan I was exotic. Women in bars would want to sleep with me simply because I was tall, blonde, and blue-eyed. This was actually a turn off. No thanks. I did have a romantic social life in Japan. I also ran once again into the problem of paired women. For a while I was dating Noriko, a receptionist at the company where I was working. We spent a lot of our time off together. I met her family and her old professors and she played tour guide. She was cute, cuddly and very sweet. I was certainly attracted to her, but again I had more primal feelings for another of our co-workers. Sumiko was taller, sleeker, and had a long mane of wavy hair. There was a touch of the dragon lady about her. She looked very much like early ’90s idol Natsuki Okamoto. She also had more of a cynical streak to her than Noriko which matched my personality better. One evening after work, Sumiko and I went for drinks with our office manager. We were sitting side by side with our legs touching. After a couple of drinks I let my hand fall on her thigh. She placed her hand on mine and squeezed. Then she moved her hand to my thigh, pulled our legs tighter together and wrapped her calf around mine so her toes ended up back on her side of my leg. I was dating the wrong girl again. At the end of the evening, as I stood with our office manager watching Sumiko’s hips sway as she walked to her train, I asked the office manager why I always dated the wrong woman. Her opinion was I was stupid. Can’t argue.

I think my fiancée rates a post of her own.

I didn’t go to university straight from high school. Instead I started first year when I was twenty-four. A few other mature students and I were amused by all the eighteen and nineteen year olds playing house. The age gap between twenty-four and nineteen is amazing. I ended up studying geography and with field assignments, study sessions, and evenings out, a steady stream of lovely ladies came by my apartment just off campus: Nicci, Marge, Robin, Robyn, Barb, Jocelyn, a handful of Leahs, Corey. My roommate for one term, an engineering student, eventually cornered me and with a note of desperation in his voice asked how I knew so many beautiful women. Dude, you took the wrong major.

I was sitting on the couch in the geography students’ lounge one day, shooting the breeze with Marge who was washing her coffee cup at the sink, when Jocelyn, another of our classmates, stopped in the doorway, fixed me with a determined glare and informed me she wanted to make it absolutely clear that under no circumstances was she interested in any sort of relationship with me. Jocelyn left as abruptly as she had arrived. Marge stepped out from where she had been hidden by the sink and gave me a strange look. She asked if I had asked Jocelyn out. No, I hadn’t.

I don’t know if I would have gotten around to asking Jocelyn out. Yes, she was intelligent, quick witted, and jaw-droppingly beautiful, but she was also fearsomely organized all the time, a trait I find a bit grating in a romantic partner. Also, minor point, I was engaged at the time. Although we never dated we shared an interest in live theatre and once each term went out for dinner and a show. Usually a musical like The Mikado or Brigadoon. I think I bought the theatre tickets and she bought dinner. It might have been the other way around, but I sort of remember double-checking my choice of show and showtime worked for her. Why would I do that if she were buying the tickets? She dressed up nice, and will always have a special place in my heart. She holds the still unique honour of being the only woman to dump me before I asked her out.

Happy Valentine’s Day Jocelyn and Sumiko, Noriko, Sheila, Margaret, Andrea,  Elena, and Michelle. Also Bonnie, Yumi, Fiona, Rissy, Chele, Kinga, Krystal, Stephanie, Anna, Jan, Jen, Vivan, Maria, Masami, Junko, Yuko, Bug, Marina, Darcy, Shelly, Sam, Nicci, Marge, Leslie, Corrina, Lisbeth, Sharon, Mary, Kim, Tracey, Nadja, Melissa, Lese, Lisa, Phaedra, Mindy, Cindy, Star, Moon and all the other lovely ladies.


Critiques

In addition to writing I take photographs. I am good at both. Landscapes are aggravating—I haven’t composed a satisfying one yet—and commas and I have a difficult relationship, but I have studied the forms of both arts and have practiced. Family, friends, or acquaintances who know my dedication to these arts will often ask if I will look at their pictures or stories and tell them what I think. The first stage of my answer is always the same, “Do you want me to tell you how great they are, or do you want an actual critique?”

Critiquing is a rare and unappreciated skill, and it is a skill. Giving a critique is not just saying you like something or don’t like something. It is a skill that must be learned and that requires knowledge of the forms of whatever is being critiqued, be it prose, poetry, photography, or surgery. Receiving a critique is also a skill that must be learned. I studied architecture in graduate school. We had studio crits every week. As a graduate school, my class was comprised entirely of adults. Even the youngest and most naive amongst us had full undergraduate degrees under their belts. Every week included people crying in the hallway. It wasn’t that we were particularly horrid to each other, although some professors did use critiques more to assert their power over cowering students that to teach. It takes effort to learn and internalize that it is an individual work being critiqued, not your worth as an individual.

We had some core rules for critiques that I have encountered again and again in worthwhile critique groups.

  • The creator of the work may introduce the work, but is not required to.
  • The creator of the work will answer direct questions, but is not allowed to defend the work. Listen.
  • Only the work presented may be critiqued. Not other works. Not any aspect of the creator as a person.
  • If you say something negative, you must say something positive, and vice versa.

The last is not to spare the feelings of the creator. Notice it works both ways. If you say something positive, you must also say something negative. The purpose is to get the critic to examine the work. There is always something good in every work. There is always something not so good in every work.

The common phrase “I am my own worst critic,” captures the natural and proper state of things. As creator of a work, you have examined that work more closely than any critic will. Critics will spot things you missed, but you still have unparalleled detailed knowledge of the work. You know the things that don’t work, and the things that don’t work as well as they could. Those categories usually cover everything. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be satisfied with a work. There is a monumental difference between thinking a work is the best you can do at the moment, or good enough, and thinking it is beyond criticism. A very populous culture on the internet puts their works up for critique and demand that people say only nice things. Idiots and fools engaged in a complete waste of time. Nothing you nor I will ever create will be perfect. Learn to separate your self worth from your work, grow a thick skin, take your lumps, and learn your craft.

That said, most of the negative comments these delicate flowers are trying to avoid are equally useless. Another annoying culture teems on the internet. I don’t know if the internet spawned it, aggravated it, or merely highlighted it. A very large number of people on the internet, and in the meat world, think the statements “It is not good, therefore I don’t like it.” and “I don’t like it, therefore it is not good.” are equivalent. They are not. I don’t care if you didn’t like it. I don’t know who you are, other than you’re a nobody, a nothing, an insignificant speck of flotsam in the gyre of humanity. Same as me. Same as everyone. Some blogs and other sites purport to review movies or books or whatnots, but are nothing more than an individual or group saying they didn’t like this therefore it isn’t good or they did like this therefore it is good. Tell me why a work is good or not good or you tell me nothing. In the story arts, tell me about plot, setting, characterization. In the performance arts tell me about performance. In the visual arts tell me about composition, colour, light, balance, discord. Tell me how a work makes you feel, but tell me why the work makes you feel that.

Roger Ebert, to pick a name most people will recognize, is a good critic. In part, I have seen so many films I have read his reviews of that I have a good idea of our comparative tastes. That aside, he still writes a darn good review. He gives enough information, without giving away too much, that I can decide if I am likely to enjoy a film or not whatever his final judgement. He and other entertainment critics are in a special position in needing to convey the tone of the plot without giving away the plot, but he manages. I don’t have to rely on his thumbs up or thumbs down. His critiques provide enough information for me to form my own opinion whether a film is likely worth the gamble of admission.

The vast majority of user reviews on websites are useless. Two hundred words on how The Latest Bestseller is the best book you have ever read in your life ever, how it cured your cat and spiced up your love life, give me no useful information at all—except for a worrisome glimpse into your relationship with your pets. Star ratings are, if possible, even less useful. The anonymous clicking of buttons provides no clues for weeding out the merely inane from the insane. Sites which provide a relative breakdown of 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 star ratings are a huge step up. I’ll discuss why when I tackle statistics.

Giving and receiving critiques are both skills that most people have not mastered or even attempted. If you want to improve your craft or if you put your work out for public acclaim, you must learn to take a critique. To review the fundamental points for receiving a critique:

  • It is not about you.
  • Listen.
  • Don’t defend.

You got a bad critique? Move on. Don’t pick fights. Do ask yourself if the critique is bad because you don’t agree with it or bad because it doesn’t provide any useful insight. If the critic missed the key point of your work that explains everything, did he miss it because he’s a drooling idiot and his mother dresses him funny, or did he miss it because you were not clear?

When giving a critique:

  • Critique the work, not the creator.
  • Be clear and precise in your statements.
  • Reference the forms of the work.
  • Find the positive and the negative. Both are present in every work.

Go out. Have fun. Help each other. And if you want me to look at your pictures or your stories, ask yourself—do you want me to tell you how great they are, or do you want an actual critique?