Archive for April 2010

The slow-moving “profound revelation”

30 April 2010

The ironic term “profound revelation” is borrowed from a Woodstock-era drug-humour book called A Child’s Garden of Grass, but its use here is not meant as any kind of drug reference. Rather, it applies well to a certain progression of thought: when, in the midst of research, one discovers or figures out a particularly interesting fact, and thinks “holy cow! look what I found!”—and then, upon further research, realises that just about anybody with marginally closer proximity to the subject matter would look upon this so-called discovery and say, “well, duh.”

One of the most fascinating (to me) items in the history of East Lansing, Michigan, is that it not only had a streetcar line that served the Agricultural College from Lansing, but that the line was later upgraded to an interurban service that reached all the way to Owosso. Growing up riding CATA buses, I had no idea that this other form of public transportation had existed, some fifty-plus years earlier. That is until, as a teenager in the mid-’80s, I saw the tracks myself—hidden beneath the pavement of M.A.C. Avenue, briefly exposed during a repaving project.

Befuddled by this inexplicable, long-buried infrastructure, and as yet unaware of the streetcar, I promptly forgot about it. But several years later, as I started my research on city history, I came upon Chace Newman’s 1915 map of the city and immediately noted the railroad tracks running past the college grounds and straight up M.A.C. Avenue. I put two and two together and realised what those rusty rails had been.

I wanted to know more, but at the time my resources were more limited. J.D. Towar informs us that the interurban reached Owosso and was popular for excursions to Pine Lake, which we now call Lake Lansing. Newman’s map only extends to the 1915 city limits, and even then the subdivision of Avon Dale—not yet incorporated into the city—is obscured by the map legend. The interurban line ran along the south side of Burcham Drive, but cannot be seen on the map as it reaches Hagadorn Road.

So I left it at that. The vague “headed out past Pine Lake to Owosso” would have to suffice.

Late last year, I noticed an interesting marking on the OpenStreetMap wiki atlas: a dotted line denoted “Interurban Pathway.” “Holy cow!” I exclaimed, or words to that effect. “That must be the old interurban right-of-way!” As that map shows, the railway continued straight along Burcham Drive, past Park Lake Road, and went on without bend at least as far as Okemos Road. With new-found excitement, I started to track down further information on the line, slowly piecing together its route through old maps and vague references in newspapers and history books. As recently as two days ago I sent an e-mail to someone at the city, ingenuously asking, “I think maybe that thing, near your thing, might possibly be part of an old interurban right-of-way… do you know anything about this?”

Little did I realise that this obscure (to me) “Interurban Pathway” on OpenStreetMap was in fact a rails-to-trails project of Meridian Charter Township, and was paved with a twelve-foot-wide strip of asphalt in 2007.

Well, duh. Maybe if I still lived near East Lansing I’d have half a clue these things were happening. Turns out, this summer the township and the county road commission will extend the pathway along the interurban right-of-way by another mile or so, out to Marsh Road. I wonder if they’ll find any remnants of the old railbed.

An open reply, not that you deserve it

27 April 2010
Categories: Chicago

Last week the following hand-written postcard was mailed to our home:

You have the ugliest front yard on [this street]—probably in all of Chicago. Garbage all over. Bottes all over. Get your lazy Ukranian asses moving and clean up your garbage dump. It is repulsive. All the other neighbors take pride in the neighborhood. You are absolute pigs.

[All misspellings and emphasis—in purple highlighter, no less—are in the original.]

In what way exactly did you expect us to respond to this angry, hateful, anonymous missive? Did you think we would leap up and run to the yard, tools in hand, and make drastic changes? Tear it all up and put down a nice, even layer of sod? Because truth be told, my initial reaction was to respond to your anger in kind, and decide that under no circumstances would I undertake any effort that might bring you any satisfaction.

Not that I would anyway. You see, the front garden is not my bailiwick—it is under the direction of my septuagenarian mother-in-law. You have attacked a senior citizen. She is, far from being lazy, one of the most hard-working and industrious people you could meet, at any age. Her gardening style may be a bit unconventional, perhaps, and her budget is limited, but her results have been both interesting and beautiful. We offer to help, but more often than not she prefers to do the work herself.

The garden you see is not the result of laziness, it is a work in progress. The “bott[l]es” you mention, unless they were the transitory garbage of passing drunks—a commonality of any urban environment, and something we clean up whenever we see it—were probably the Mason jars that she had upended over the shoots of tender perennials, as impromptu “cold frames” to protect them from late-season frosts. Meanwhile, the area near the street—which is city property—is still recovering from the city workers who cut down a dead tree last year, but left the roots behind. (And who got off their asses and called the city about that tree? Yes. We did.)

Sure, in early spring the lack of grass makes it appear as if nothing is growing there, but that could not be further from the truth. It’s late April now and things are changing rapidly. The ground cover is filling in neatly between plantings. The hostas are sprouting thick and healthy. A neat row of day lilies is getting ready to do its thing. The rhododendrons are blooming now, and the roses will later. All this did not occur without significant effort.

Is our front yard a boring, generic mass of lawn, like that of every other house on the block? No—and I’m glad it’s not. If you want dull, thoughtless uniformity, I know of more than a few suburbs that might suit you.

Your accusation of laziness, and your implication of unneighborliness, are without any merit. Who has stood in the street in drenching rains, working to clear blocked drains along the entire block before the curbs overflow and dump rainwater and sewage into nearby basements—drains that have clogged with debris that remains in the gutters thanks to other residents who have been either too lazy, too self-absorbed, or too oblivious to move their vehicles on street sweeping days? That would be me. To my knowledge only one other neighbor on the block has even attempted to pick up what the street sweeper could not reach.

By the way, we are not Ukrainian; but would be proud if we were, for on the whole they have shown themselves to be good people who have been both friendly and welcoming to us. This neighborhood is called Ukrainian Village for a reason. If you have a problem with Ukrainians, you are most assuredly in the wrong place, and you need to go somewhere else. The sooner the better.

I really only have one question for you. Who has brought more ugliness into the world: my family, with our front yard filled with flowering plants; or you, with your hateful, insulting, race-baiting, poison-pen postcard?

Two appliances, two different design universes

21 April 2010
Categories: Uncategorized

In our office lunch room, we’ve recently had a pair of appliances installed: a coffee maker and a hot/cold water filtration unit. In using both, it struck me how divergent their designs are from each other.

On the right, the fancy filtration unit dispenses both chilled drinking water and hot water for tea, instant soup, etc. As a safety measure, to get hot water from the unit one must push two buttons at once: the red button above the graphic of a steaming glass—and another button labeled “hot safety.”

Of course it’s meant to keep children from scalding themselves. I suppose that justifies its intent, if not its necessity.

As an aside, this safety feature defeated our lead programmer, who is brilliant and intelligent and tech-savvy, but who skipped the hilariously elementary (example: “Take one coffee filter…” [hold filter up for all to see]) orientation session for these appliances.

On the left, the coffee maker will also dispense hot water for tea—via a big, red-handled spigot.

If a child walked up to these two machines, what’s the first thing they’d do? Press the little red button—or pull the big red handle?

I’m not saying the coffee maker’s spigot is unsafe. Not many (if any) children spend time in our offices, so it’s a moot point. And if nothing else it enabled that aforementioned staffer to get hot water for her tea.

The filtration unit is not, however, exempt from my ridicule. See that blue light that shines down on whatever container you’re filling? At first I thought it might be one of those ultraviolet lamps that kill bacteria. Not so. This light is decorative—in fact, it’s not merely decorative, it’s purely decorative.

Why? Because if it had any function at all, it would make a lot of sense, while dispensing hot water, for that light to turn red. But no, it doesn’t. Instead, it’s counterintuitive: dispense piping-hot—nay, scalding—water that glows with a light that stays cool, cool blue.


14 April 2010
Categories: Uncategorized

Although the abuse that the English language takes on this weblog could be seen as a contraindication, I delight in wordplay. So when last week—on April Fools’ Day, appropriately enough—I came across the Bad Translator website, I was hooked.

The site performs a simple task: it takes a phrase of 250 characters or less and passes it through the Google Translator, from English to another language and back to English again, over and over. In the process, the original words and meaning are completely mangled. As the site explains, “Machine translations are useful for getting a general idea about what text written in a foreign language means.” But beyond that “general idea”—watch out!

Song lyrics are good fodder; it seems like their meter and prose are prone to very odd results. So, after a few small tests, I fed it the chorus of the Michigan State University Fight Song. Bad Translator responded with:

“Michigan, my son, ‘Sparta’ We see a strong team that won the game! Less! Less! Less! You can see a weak team and the sport and the game won! ‘Just below! Crew! University of Michigan Winners!'”

It starts out pretty good, but finishes horribly—somehow the word “State” has been lost. To a Spartan, there’s little worse than being conflated with that other university, down the road in Ann Arbor (something that other school has attempted many times in the past 150 years or so).

So I tried again, using the alma mater, “MSU Shadows”:

“University of Michigan, in a cool, dark, black pine Plyushchev faith, our Alma mater, distribution of time dog wallpaper, admiration, respect and love the sound of the University of Michigan.”

Ouch! Again, it has converted my school’s name to (ahem) those other guys. And, insultingly, it managed to expand “MSU” into “Michigan State University” before obliterating “State” and flipping it around (ptui). But still, this is great fun. I mean, who the heck is Plyushchev? And who can beat the absurd surrealism of the “distribution of time dog wallpaper”?

Smarting from the co-optation of two songs dear to my heart, I decided turnabout is fair play, and fed it the fight song of that other school, “The Victors”—and that’s when I fell out of my chair, laughing.

Hot! This cream is a problem!
Long live the fighters,
if in the interests of the Hot!
Michigan best pilot!

Hot! This cream is a problem!
Long live the fighters,
if in the interests of the Hot!
Uesutotshanpyon Michigan!

Holy crap, that’s funny. I imagine that opening line preceded by a spit-take—someone taking the first tentative slurp of a cup of steaming coffee, then suddenly spewing it out in a cloud of mist and shouting an indignant non sequitur, “Hot! This cream is a problem!”

Then, a left turn: the original lyrics’ notion of supporting one’s warriors is retained—but only if that troublesome cup of coffee approves! “If in the interests of the Hot”… if not, well, too bad fighters, you’re at the mercy of that oh-so-fickle Hot.

Then, finally, that awesome word: Uesutotshanpyon. It’s a totally non-existent word; a Google search returns zero results. For some reason the translator, having gotten to the point where “Champions of the West” had become “West Champion,” failed to translate that phrase into Japanese and instead transliterated it phonetically. It came back to English the same way, and remained intact through numerous other translations. I find that hilarious.

Having taken State’s arch-rivals down a notch, I played with some other stuff. Robert W. Service’s “Cremation of Sam McGee” was delightful, starting off indecisive (“Sunday lunch or after work…”) and occasionally turning Mr. McGee into Montréal’s McGill University. “O Canada” wound up being about Brazil. The description of one of my company’s products included something about ferrets.

Bad Translator could be improved a bit. It always runs through the languages in alphabetical order, starting with Afrikaans and ending with Yiddish. I think it should take them in random order—then the results would be different every time. If I were more Javascript-adept I might be able to do this myself.

After some more play, with mixed results, I gave it one of my all-time favourite songs: “Alone Again Or” from the 1968 masterpiece album Forever Changes by Love. It distilled the whole thing down to two lines, and while it’s terse and a bit inscrutable, it retained a sense of poetry:

I remember well, we decided
Yes, I know who I am, what people think, a little love today.

Intrigued by how much it shortened the song, I got to wondering if it could get down to one word, and what it would be. It only needed two more iterations:

I know very little memory.

Which reduced to: