2009 07 17

Posted by in: Anecdotal

Walter Cronkite just died. My oldest political memories are of lying on living room floor in front of the television and watching Walter Cronkite’s nightly newscast. In particular, I remember how he used to count off the days of the Iranian hostage crisis. I also remember his last broadcast, and how he almost looked a bit tipsy during it, though it could have simply been emotion. I used to feel sorry for Dan Rather when he filled in for Cronkite, since Rather seemed sort of nervous and high-strung compared to Cronkite. Anyway, that’s what I remember of Walter Cronkite.

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2009 07 17

Posted by in: Anecdotal

So I finally broke down and joined Facebook a few days ago.

Most of the people I know don’t have blogs. Of course I knew in some abstract way that they might well be hanging out somewhere else online, but because I hardly even bothered to peek over Yoon’s shoulder when she was on FB, I didn’t realize the sheer volume of activity going on elsewhere, in that semi-private zone away from the world of blogs. It’s sort of like walking down a quiet, industrial street, turning into a dark path between two houses, and suddenly finding yourself in a lush garden filled with people talking and laughing and drinking, like in some beer commercial. Huh.

OK, so the blogosphere is not best described as a quiet, industrial street. I just mean that most people aren’t there, and a whole lot of people I know seem to be on FB.

Beyond that, and a general admiration at how they must be handling the technical challenges inherent in offering a service like this, I don’t have much of an impression to report yet.

Howls of outrage (5)

2009 06 17
Despair, triumph, gratitude

Posted by in: Anecdotal

Our green cards arrived in the mail today, almost two years after we first applied for them. Two years doesn’t sound like a long time to wait for a green card, but I can assure you that they have been packed solid with gripping unblogged drama. As a result of a series of screw ups, for much of this time we have both been unable to travel, and I have been unable to work. At the beginning of the month, just before we found out that we had been approved, we were actually on the point of deciding to return to Canada at the end of July.

Besides a feeling of overwhelming relief, the main thing I feel now is gratitude. Throughout this entire ordeal, Yoon and I have been on the receiving end of a stupendous amount of generosity and kindness from a large and supportive network of friends and family. It made a bigger difference than I can adequately describe. We are both profoundly grateful.

Howls of outrage (10)

2009 04 06
Of Rawls and Self-Improvement

In the growing-up department, I still have a long way to go. Many of my habits are bad bad bad, and I have myriad tendencies that I don’t endorse and that leave me feeling full of self-reproach if acted upon.

But I must say that I felt some sense of pride when I saw this and felt revulsion at the thought of reading it. (The fact that it exists at all, in published form, is more than a bit nauseating, as well.)

There is some hope for me after all, I guess.

Howls of outrage (5)

2009 02 06

Posted by in: Anecdotal

I wonder which group blog this poor bastard writes for.

Howls of outrage (21)

2009 01 25

Posted by in: Anecdotal

I was taking a walk this afternoon when I passed two people trying to park a car on the side of the street. The car was in neutral, the engine off. A woman was steering. A man who looked at least 70, and very tired, was pushing ineffectually at the rear of the car and saying something like, “Turn the wheel to the right. You need to turn the wheel to the right.”

I walked over and said, “Excuse me, do you need a hand pushing?”

And he turned to me and, without any trace of sarcasm or hostility or anything that might have led me to think he was being anything but serious, said “Oh, no thanks. We’ll turn the engine on if we need to.”

Howls of outrage (12)

2009 01 04

Posted by in: Anecdotal, New York City

I was in the mood for a stroll yesterday morning, so I took the subway to the North end of Manhattan and then walked from the point at which Broadway enters Manhattan from the Bronx down its entire length to where it stops not far from the Southernmost tip of the island.

It’s a nice walk. Google Earth tells me that it’s about 13.5 miles, or 21.5 kilometres. But most of the walking is flat, or on a gentle grade, and there’s a lot to look at. I took a leisurely pace, and stopped a number of times, and the whole walk took me less than 5 hours.

Great waves of money have washed over Manhattan in the last decade or so, destroying a lot of its social and economic diversity. So a walk down Broadway doesn’t offer the same crosscut of Manhattan society that it once did. Still, there’s plenty of variety on that one road.

Broadway begins in Manhattan on a very modest note, in a sort of ugly industrial squalor. To get there, you take the 1 train to 215th St in Manhattan, and then walk a few blocks North. Then you turn around and begin walking South, through Inwood, under the George Washington Bridge, through Washington Heights, getting glimpses of the Hudson River at each of the side streets for a time, then past Harlem, and Columbia, the Upper West Side, drawing away from the West side of the island as you move South, past Lincoln Center, through Columbus Circle, where Broadway finally, briefly touches Central Park, and then on into the canyon of buildings that leads up to Times Square, with its crowds of tourists, and cops, and street preachers, and then past Herald Square and Korea Way on 32nd st., and then past Union Square, and the Strand Bookstore, and Houston, finally leaving the numbered streets behind, and then past Canal and Chinatown, and City Hall, though the financial district and right to the end, by a statue of a Bull, symbol of a prosperous stock market, which faces up Broadway, and which seems to be surrounded by tourists at any hour of the day snapping shots of it, as if worshiping the symbol of a departed god.

No small part of Manhattan’s appeal is the modesty of its geographical size relative to its ambitions and its accomplishments. This makes for an incredible density of visual and architectural experience and historical reference, but on a scale that is walkable, and so both human and accessible. It’s an amazing city, and one way into it, into its life and its energy and its accomplishment, is to take an afternoon, and walk one of its most famous streets, from one end to the other.

Howls of outrage (7)

2008 10 11

Posted by in: Anecdotal

I went to a concert at the People’s Symphony series this evening. It’s first come first serve, so I got there early to get good seats. Since my date took forever to arrive, I ended up chatting for a while with an older woman sitting beside me. After a conversation about our respective reading lists, it emerged that her son was a well-known philosopher. She was very proud of him, and very happy that I recognized his name immediately, and had heard him speak a few years back at a public event. But after boasting for a while, her thoughts took a darker turn. “You know, he’s such a profound, serious philosopher. So serious. So successful. But do you want to know something? He’s on Facebook!” She looked at me to get my reaction to this news, and then added: “I have to say, he spends a lot of time on Facebook.”

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 09 10
The MTA disappoints me, again

A few years ago I was on a flight from Toronto to New York. Early in the flight, the pilot came on and spoke for a minute. Practically nothing he said was intelligible, and I turned to the woman seated beside me and made a comment comparing the announcement to the absurd and often impossible-to-hear announcements you hear every day on the subway in New York City. She smiled. Twenty minutes later, we struck up a conversation, and ten minutes into the conversation she told me that her husband was in charge of communications for the whole of the MTA. We both laughed (I felt a bit sheepish, but she was very nice about it), and she promised to bring my comment to his attention.

So you see, I’ve tried to get the MTA to understand how badly it communicates. I’ve gone straight to the top, with a personal appeal, however inadvertent. And yet it seems to me even years after this encounter that they’ve still got a lot of room for improvement.

My experience Monday gives a good example of how crappy communication skills on the part of the MTA leads them to regularly and completely unnecessarily inconvenience hundreds of riders, including me. My brother was in town, visiting from Canada. We arranged to meet in Union Square outside the Barnes and Noble. He was coming from Queens and I was coming from the Newkirk Avenue Station on the B/Q line in Brooklyn.

Now, if you look at the map, you’ll see that someone traveling from Newkirk Avenue Station to Union Square is, all other things being equal, better off taking the Q. True, the Q goes local in Brooklyn, hitting three stops on the way into town from Newkirk that the B will skip. But once you’ve gotten to Prospect Park, the B and Q run on the same paths until Manhattan, and then the Q is actually a bit faster in Manhattan. It also goes directly to Union Square. The B, by contrast, will get you to the 4th St. Station at which point you’ve got a 10 or 15 minute walk to Union Square, or a transfer to the F or V up to 14th St., and a 5 to 8 minute walk to Union Square. So, as I said, all other things being equal, you’re going to want the Q if you’re headed to Union Square.

All other things being equal. But sometimes they’re not equal. If the Q is delayed for some reason, and it’s nice day, and you don’t mind a little exercise, you’re better off just getting the B and then walking in Manhattan. Wouldn’t it be nice, then, for the MTA to tell you when the Q is delayed?

When I got to the subway platform at a little after 8:30am, it was crowded with people. Eventually, a B pulled up. But it pulled up on the local track. This was odd. Was there something wrong with the Q? I scanned the station for signs indicating track work, but there weren’t any. Was a Q shortly behind it? I leaned out over the other side of the platform, looking vainly up the tracks to see if another train had come into view around the corner. But my view was obstructed by dozens of other people attempting the same thing. I know now that I should have gotten on that B. But since the B was running local, it no longer had any advantage over the Q within Brooklyn, and wouldn’t have taken me to the right place in Manhattan anyway. No announcement from the B train itself was forthcoming. So I decided to wait.

Ten or fifteen minutes later another B pulled up on the local tracks. There was no explanation for its unusual behaviour over the intercom in the Newkirk Avenue Station. There was no hint about where the next Q was, which would have helped me to decide between trains. Again, no announcement from the B train itself was forthcoming. Again, I leaned out as far as I could over the tracks, along with dozens of other people, and looked for signs of a Q. At this point I was going to be late, and since my brother doesn’t have a cell phone (?!?$?%?), he would be waiting with no explanation. If I got on the B-going-local and thereby passed up a perfectly good Q, it would make me even later. But if I waiting for a Q took longer than the amount of time the B would add in terms of walking then I would be better off simply taking the B. I let the B go by.

As I waited, I saw hundreds of other people making similar calculations. I heard people pulling out their cell phones to cancel appointments, and watched as people leaned out from time to time to see if anything was coming down the tracks. What made me so angry wasn’t the delay with the Q so much as the entirely avoidable inconvenience to everyone caused by the failure to communicate clearly what was going on, so that people could make informed decisions about how to rout around the delay. Now I know that they can do this. I know that they can do this because once every hundred years, and rarely when it’s needed, the speakers at the Newkirk Avenue Station will come to life and inform us that there’s, say, a Manhattan-bound Q train three stations away. So they know! They fucking know where the trains are, and they can communicate this information when they want to. The problem is that they rarely want to.

After a while, I saw co-blogger Brad walking by. I launched into a spirited denunciation of the MTA. After I had waxed apoplectic for a while, Brad laughed and then:

Brad: I hear you, believe me. Hey, I think I sense a blog post coming on!
Chris: Ha! That’ll show them. You better believe it.
Brad: I’ll comment the shit out of that post.

And then a B express train pulled up, and Brad hopped on. A B express. What did this mean? One reasonable interpretation of the B on the express tracks after two successive Bs on local tracks was that whatever unexplained mess had caused the Q to stop running and the B to go local was now cleared up. If that interpretation was correct, the Q would no doubt be pulling into the station shortly. If it was incorrect, I would be better off hoping on the B. And again, I needed to ask: was the next Q more than 10 minutes away from the station? If more than 10 minutes, then getting on the B would be worth it. If less than 10 minutes, I would be making myself even later by getting on the B. Gosh it would have been nice if the MTA had helped me and hundreds of other riders make an informed decision. I let the B go by.

And then waited. And waited. And waited. And finally a B and a Q pulled up at the station at the same time. Now I don’t want to be a bore, so I won’t relate any more of the story in detail. There were more delays, caused apparently by a malfunctioning train ahead of us that had to be taken out of service, though I’m not sure if that was only an explanation for the slowness of the service on the Q that arrived or whether it actually accounted for all the delays that morning. Once I actually got on the Q, and couldn’t do anything about my situation, I was bombarded by constant updates about the reason for the delays. But this information came too late to be of any use. I ended up arriving at Union Square just before 10am, about an hour more than the trip should normally take during rush hour. My poor brother had been eaten by wolves.

Subways are always going to have malfunctions that cause delays. But you can realize enormous gains in efficiency simply by communicating clearly and effectively so that people can act on good information. This is the case on any subway line. But at a station with more than one train, and a correspondingly complex set of trade-offs involved in picking a route to your destination, it’s absolutely essential.

Howls of outrage (25)

2008 06 07
Verizon Wireless bill archive security glitch

Second Update

In the end, Verizon sent me a letter notifying me that there was a security glitch with the bill archive section of the site. It noted that although the chance of my personal information getting into someone else’s hands was small, their system indicated that I used bill archive during the period in which the system was compromising information.

I would say that it was exactly the letter I would have written, had I been in charge at Verizon. So, a happy ending to that episode.

End Second Update

Update (Monday, June 9th):

OK, just got off the phone with someone from Verizon. I think the blog post got their attention pretty quickly. (He told me they found the post first, and then matched it to the ticket I had opened about the issue later.) I sensed a bit of frustration on his part that I concluded so quickly that they weren’t serious about the problem. At any rate, he reassured me that the technicians were working as quickly as possible to fix the problem, and that the entire bill archive would be taken down at 5pm today until they were sure it was fixed. He also reassured me that Verizon cares very much about privacy. I said I was happy to update the post with that information.

I asked if they planned to issue any public notice about this, and he said that this was up to the public relations people, and he wasn’t sure if they had decided anything.

So, there you go.

End Update

On Thursday morning, I was trying to access some old cell phone bills online at As I clicked through the months, most of the time the correct bill came up (as a pdf). But twice for some reason served up someone else’s bill. The first time I just absentmindedly clicked away and tried again. But the second time it occurred to me that there was something really squirrelly about the fact that I was able to access some other random dude’s bill. I could see all the calls that this guy made in September, 2007, his account number, and the fact that his bill was past due that month. That’s hardly the biggest security breach in history, but it’s also a legitimate concern for people who care about their privacy, and rely on companies to take reasonable steps to secure personal information.

I spent 30 minutes on the phone with Verizon trying to get someone to understand that there was clearly some technical glitch on their end, and that it raised a privacy issue (and a potential legal issue for them). The first person I talked to tried to duplicate the effect, failed after trying once (for each month), and then tried to get rid of me. I pointed out that usually when I requested my bill, it did serve up the proper pdf. The problem clearly wasn’t resulting from a permanently misaddressed pdf file. Rather, something was getting tangled up when the pdf requests were generated or processed by the server. I insisted she transfer me to someone else, who then transfered me to someone else, who then promised me that someone would call me back with an explanation. No one has called yet.

I also made them promise to call this guy and tell him that someone else had been able to view information that should have been kept private, but about 5 minutes after I got off the phone with them I realized that that was unlikely. So I called the guy up and left a message. He called back a few hours later. No one from Verizon had called him. 10 seconds of googling suggests that he’s a bean farmer in the Midwest. I didn’t ask, but he certainly sounded like a bean farmer. He didn’t seem too pissed off, but he did say he’d give them a call “cause that’s just not right.” He asked where I was calling from and I told him Brooklyn, NY. “Brooklyn! All the way from Brooklyn!” he said, clearly relishing the exoticness of my location. “I’m in XXXX.” I said: “I know! I’m looking at your bill.” And then he thanked me and we got off the phone.

Anyway, if someone from Verizon calls or drops a comment here, I’m happy to update the post with any new information. If I were in charge of this stuff at Verizon, I think it would be reasonable to a) figure out as quickly as possible what’s wrong with the way the server processes requests for archived bills; and b) issue a brief security notice admitting that a few customers had personal information compromised, but that the problem had since been fixed. Until Verizon does both of these things, I think I’m going to continue feeling sort of underwhelmed by their attitude to security and privacy.

Howls of outrage (15)

2008 05 20
Shake your booty

Posted by in: Anecdotal, Dance

I was at a wedding this weekend, and so had occasion, once again, to observe people dancing. Although I find the values and goals of religious extremists abhorrent, I think that their hatred and fear of dancing makes perfect sense given those values and goals. It’s just so hot. Indeed, perhaps in part because I don’t see dancing all that often, whenever I do I’m struck by how incredibly openly sexual and, dare I say it, lascivious it all is. I think if I were an alien studying human behaviour and I knew just about everything there is to know about human beings except that we danced, I would not have predicted that it would be permissible in public. I’m not, of course, and it is, and thank goodness for that.

Howls of outrage (5)

2008 04 24
Thought of the week

Posted by in: Anecdotal

We live right at the 24 mile marker of the Boston Marathon, so I spent all day Monday cheering on weary runners as they entered the final stage of their grueling journey. At one point I watched as Lance Armstrong and his coterie floated by. Turns out Armstrong, who finished well but was by no means in contention to place, finished with a time that was better than the time that won the first Boston Marathon in 1897. I don’t know how amazing that is, given how long ago that was, but it still seems remarkable.

But the thought of the week is this. Given that the first marathon was run in ancient Greece in order to deliver a message, it is remarkable how many people ran by me holding cell phones up to their ears.

As one is wont to say at this point, That is all.

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2008 04 10
On the radio, part two

Posted by in: Anecdotal

Oh man, I’m such a pretentious twit. I managed to get about 20 seconds into the interview before I interrupted the host to correct him (he said the “Axis of Evil” line came from the 2003 State of the Union speech, when of course it came from the 2002 speech). The rest of it went so fast I don’t remember it very clearly, but I think I was a pretentious twit for at least some of the rest too. I think I made the following points:

-Nuclear proliferation is a bad thing. Nuclear proliferation involving North Korea is a bad thing. But let’s be clear about this: It’s not as if North Korea is suddenly going to get dangerous the moment it acquires properly working nuclear weapons. For decades now North Korea has had a massive conventional deterrent. And during this entire time millions of South Koreans and tens of thousands of American servicemen and women have lived in the shadow of its artillery fire. A frighteningly large percentage of these people would be dead within a few hours of the beginning of such an attack. This is hardly ideal, but that’s the point: we’ve lived with the very-far-from-ideal for a while now. So let’s put this in perspective.

-If I were negotiating with North Korea, I would try to offer non-aggression assurances, as well as some reasonable inducement to give up the nuclear program. But then I’d be willing to walk away if they didn’t take me up on the offer. (What I didn’t get a chance to say is that I’d probably focus on interdiction and other non-proliferation strategies and simply try to wait for the regime to collapse. These kinds of things happen incredibly suddenly when they do happen, and no one sees them coming. But I would not be at all surprised to see something very surprising happen in North Korean within five years, which would render all our current projections moot, based as they are on the assumption that the present will continue much as the past has.)

-I claimed that the United States has to get used to the idea that Iran is going to have a certain amount of influence in Iraq. Unless the US is planning to install a Sunni dictator, it’s extremely likely that large portions of the leadership of Iraq will have significant ties with Iran. Many will have spent time there in exile, they’ll have religious ties, and so on. And there’s only so much the U.S. can do about that.

-As far as dealing with Iran on nuclear proliferation, the U.S. can do lots of things. The first is to take seriously its own commitments with respect to non-proliferation agreements. It just hasn’t done that. Up until a few years ago the Bush administration was talking openly of mini-nuke bunker busters until congress finally squashed that. And they’re probably still developing them anyway. And it’s not just the US that has a serious hypocrisy problem here. How in heaven’s name can a representative of France – France, with its long history of nuclear testing in defiance of world opinion – tell an Iranian counterpart with a straight face that non-proliferation is important?

The second criticism of U.S. diplomacy I made was that it is so often incredibly undisciplined. For example, the United States needs Russia very much in its dealings with Iran. So why oh why would they choose this time to antagonize Russia completely unnecessarily with the anti-ballistic missile nonsense, especially when it will never work and everyone knows it.

We then made fun of me for being Canadian. I was asked if I speak French:

Me: Non. Un petite peu. Seulement.
Host: Huh.
Me: Monsieur Landart would be so disappointed in me.
Host: I’m sure she would.
Me: He. Um, most Monsieurs are he’s.
Host: Si.

I’m leaving out a lot. Oh yes, I claimed to be wearing a clown suit, which the host assured the audience was the national dress for Canada.

Anyway, I suppose there was a lot of talking for about 15 minutes. I had a good time, and I’m glad I enjoyed it because I doubt it’ll happen again for a long time.

Howls of outrage (7)

2008 04 10
It could only happen anywhere

Posted by in: Anecdotal

I was walking along Broadway around 20th St the other day and midway through the intersection, while pedestrians were allowed to cross, a man sat down crosslegged on the street so his companion could snap a quick photo of him. Some idiot walking by turned to me and said “Only in New York!”

I’m not sure if that’s my dumbest “Only in New York!” moment, but it’s pretty competitive.

Howls of outrage (15)

2008 04 09
On the radio

Posted by in: Anecdotal

For reasons that are entirely unclear to me (scrapping the very bottom of the barrel? mistaking me for someone else? practical joke?), I was asked go on the radio tomorrow to discuss politics.

Howls of outrage (10)