Sunday, May 26, 2019

A Writer Needs

A writer doesn't need a pen or paper.
Doesn't need good ideas.
Doesn't need an exciting life.
Or language skill.
Or a talent with words.
Or originality, or wisdom, or clarity.

There's only one essential.
All else is fungible.
A writer needs an audience.

All writing is a conversation.
You need to have in mind who's reading.
It's not exactly that you need to know your audience.
I think the harder task is to pick your audience.
It's a good idea to find and listen to someone
who you will want to read and like it.
Finding is hard. Listening is harder.
Deciding who they are may be the painfullest.
Feeling blocked just means you've failed at picking.

Do you write a manual for the layperson?
Or the towering ivory priest?
Or the person you were just before you learned it?
Or will be after you forget it?
Do you try to make it useful to some,
and just bearable to others?
And who will you forget?

Are you writing to your boss who will pay for it?
Or the lost love you almost met?
Or that obscure acquaintance who expects you to do well?
Or that guy who criticized something you wrote last year,
and it stung and stuck?
Or an archaeologist from the next civilization?
Or me.

Or that person you'll never know
whose life you'll change.
Or the person they almost are,
the person they want to be,
and you so want them to be.
Or the person who should have been
but probably won't
but might
but won't
but may.
Do you pretend you can create a person
just by wishful thinking
and talking to them?

Yes I think that's what I need to write.
To create the person, word by word,
elbowing and ribbing their becoming,
out of my muddled, clabbered yearning
idea made flesh.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Starbucks called the cops on me!

Got to be a difficult headline to make these days.

Technically a Starbucks employee called a mall cop who called the police on me. It wasn't really a Starbucks thing. This was personal.

Montreal, Canada, where I'm staying for July has La ville souterraine, The Underground City, a sprawling mall beneath the pavement that's temperate year round. This summer Sunday morning on the way to Mont-Royal park I was leaving the Peel Metro station and wandered into a part of the mall called Les Cours Mont-Royal.  Most stores were shuttered but a Cafe Starbucks was lit. An oasis of taste in the middle of low ceilings that smell like 1970. A few workers were busy in the narrow space behind the cagey mechanism that mall shops use when they're closed. I snapped a photo to send to the kids. While fiddling with putting a sad emoticon over the photo, a worker in bright green apron started sliding the cage door open. Hallelujah, what a storybook day this is turning out to be. I photographed the same scene with him in it, feeling very lucky and looking forward to a delicious fix.

He barked out that it is illegal to take photos of people without their permission and asked me to delete the photo. He approached and insisted on watching me delete the photo. I refused. He said he would call the police. Another employee called out from behind the cage confirming that it was illegal what I'd done. While the first guy watched as I hit the back button in Snapchat which deleted his photo. He was not satisfied and wanted to see my Snapchat gallery. I didn't know what that was. The second employee who had come out from behind the counter offered to show me. I said I'm leaving now. The first employee called to a security guard who confirmed that it's illegal to take photos of people without their permission, and that I was now obligated to convince the party that I had deleted the photo. Hashtag that feeling when you're in a strange country and it's stop-making-sense time.

I told him I'm leaving now. He said I can't leave.

"Are you police?"
"Are you detaining me?"
"Can I see your badge?"
        "It's back in the room. If you come with me I'll show you." He pointed down a long low side hallway.
"I'm not going anywhere with you. Do you have the right to detain me?"
        "Yes. I can make a citizen's arrest."

He was standing very close. He began a long conversation with his lapel, most of it in French.

I was immediately reminded of Matt Harding's arrest in Greece for taking pictures dancing in front of the Parthenon, as recounted in his hilarious book. (That book really is excellent, not much longer than this blog post but a hundred times more interesting.) I knew I had way less courage to spend, but the recollection primed me to be a little defiant of silly demands. I wasn't about to physically challenge Paul Blart or anyone else. But like Matt said, I was curious how far we were all willing to go with this.

When he was done I asked what happens next? "We wait for the police." At first he said all I had to do was convince the guy I'd deleted the photo and this could all be over. He called out to a custodian and asked her to go get his badge. She was exasperated at the whole thing but then offered to take his subway sandwich back to his office while she retrieved the badge. (The guy had been about to have lunch.) After I saw his badge I offered to show him my snapchat thingie whatever-it-was. But by then he wanted to wait for the police. I had the impression he didn't want to be empty handed, so to speak, when the police got there.

"I'm sitting down." I sat at a table in front of the store.

Something clicked. I turned to the security guard. Starbucks calling the police on someone, that might be newsworthy. He had a very strange look at that moment, for some reason I remember it vividly. He showed no sign of knowing what I was referring to. He inhaled deeply. Or maybe he thought "No, man, that's not at all what this is," but with no trace of contempt. It was almost sagely. In fact his hostility in that moment kind of melted away. Before then he seemed as if he was walking that fine line that authority figures know well, of keeping the situation calm, but ready to respond vigorously to any escalation. Anyway he explained this was not Starbucks calling the police, it was this guy's personal privacy I had invaded. Canada was starting to make a little more sense.

Two guys in uniform show up. They conversed with the security guard in French. One asked me how I was feeling. Then he asked again. He didn't ask me anything about my version of events.

"Are you police?"
        "We're paramedics."

They explained to the security guard that when you make a 9-1-1 call and don't specify the emergency they send everything. (Earlier there had been a French conversation with a fire guy too. I thought he was just passing through.) The paramedic took my pulse and blood pressure and asked at least four times if I was on any medication. (No times four.) He asked me to sign a form refusing to go to the hospital. He said 135 over 90 was pretty good for a 59-year-old. He could have added, one who may be about to be arrested. He said it was very unlikely I'd be arrested and probably I wouldn't be fined. The security guard on the other hand had been talking up the possibility of a fine, as well as a lawsuit from the Starbucks employee.

I asked the paramedic, "Does the security guard have any authority to detain me?"
        "No, no he doesn't" They conversed in French, then the paramedic seemed to walk it back.

I can't say how long it took the police to arrive, maybe half an hour. There were two, a man and a woman. The man cop gestured for me to stay seated when I started to stand. They talked for a while in French with everyone. The man cop looked me in the eye for a long moment before he spoke to me. He could have been sussing my state of mind. He could have been practicing his Jedi mind trick. The woman cop approached, and after I mangled a "Parlez vous Anglais?" at her, she asked "So what happened here?"

What I did next was pretty dumb. I asked -- as politely as I could muster -- if I could see their badges. The woman cop seemed perplexed, pointed out her shoulder embroidering, her uniform, her equipment. The man cop barked contemptuously "Okay we're having none of that here," and pointed to the various features of his uniform, including his conspicuous gun. I apologized, explaining that a cop in Miami had once told me to always ask to see badges, but then I remembered he had been plain-clothes. So rules are to be leavened with prudence.

I explained my morning plans, the unclosing store, the photos. The police confirmed that all I had to do was delete the photos. The woman cop knew about Snapchat gallery. She reached for my phone and offered to do it for me but I explained I needed to learn. So that's what those double-squares are for. No Starbucks photos there. From there it all started winding down. The police seemed to defer to Starbucks employee numéro un. Was he was satisfied? He nodded. I thanked Security Guard Michael, and Paramedic Giorgio. I still wanted a latte. But sometimes even I know when it's time to bail.

I left chatting amiably with the cops. (I know the best minds of our day say never talk to cops. Yeah I'm just not going to not do that. Not there yet.) I said this must happen a lot with dumb tourists. No this almost never happens. Instead of a guy in a strange country, suddenly I was just a strange guy on planet normal. They pointed the way up the street to Mont-Royal. An ambulance at the curb with flashing lights, I groaned, "Don't tell me he's here for me." Nope, he was only there partly for me. Canada politeness.

My regret is that I didn't think to ask the cops or the paramedics or the security guard or ANYone if I could take THEIR photo in front of the Starbucks. Wouldn't that have been sweet to post here? Now my dad or my brother Doug could have totally pulled off something like that. One big group selfie, the Starbucks employees would have joined in with smiles all around. My way is more like, okay now everyone disperse and go back to your lives with a gut full of WTF just happened.

I was mildly keyed up throughout the whole thing. My worry peaked when I thought, hey this really could be another hefty Canadian fine. You see my first day in Montreal I got three tickets for three different gaffes. Another story. Short version: read all the signs and read up on local laws. It wasn't a language issue, French is easy enough to translate. I misunderstood arrows. Twice. They do things differently here.

Case in point, I count eight people on at least five different payrolls who participated dutifully in my little drama, assiduously righting a cybercrime. Seriously? I wondered, is this where we're all headed. (After some research I conclude, nope, Montreal is just weird. More on that later.)

Privacy is an issue on the ascendant. The morality, legality, and value of privacy are all debated heatedly. The cost of privacy on the other hand is unambiguously on a precipitous rise. It may turn out to be one of those mortal questions like what's the value of safety, or human health. I'm a big fan of all these things, but it's obvious they're on trend to bankrupt us. If they don't, I can't picture what exactly restraint will look like. This is going to be difficult.

: : :

So here's the part where I come clean and confess all the ways my click-baity title misled you. My dumb little story was different from the far more interesting one earlier this year for several little reasons and three big ones. It was an hour inconvenience, I felt more annoyed than unsafe. More surreal than unfairly treated. More like an absent-minded anthropologist than a second-class non-citizen. Most of the time I felt in control. Those differences are small because they were limited to the day and limited to me. I sense much bigger differences.

1. I was detained exclusively for something I did (took the guy's photo), plus something I didn't do (double-delete it for mister camera-shy). I have no reason to suspect anything like this will happen to me again if merely change one specific behavior. And it's an easy change. I never felt as if I might be treated differently because of who I am. No pattern here, this was one-off. 2. I could have ended the episode at any time by giving up something that cost nothing. And if I'd done a little research I could have avoided it entirely. I felt in control throughout. 3. There was no clue that all my descendants will have lots of experiences like this all their lives. I was thinking how my kids are going to laugh about this. I'll finally have something to post that's interesting to them. It was a temporary puddle of dumbness I was in. I never felt as if the rules for me -- and for them -- were forever going to be a little more strict, a little harsher, a little bleaker. This was freak weather, not climate change. Amusing and soon to be over. Not like it's always going to be this way.

So I'm three degrees of underqualified to know what the business end of racism feels like. I had a little taste of organized coercion today. Of putting up with a bit of stupidity and overkill. I was on edge all day from it. I'm something of a virtuoso at hiding feelings, but this one is likely to strike out someday soon. I'll be on watch. Anyway I have to respect as beyond my horizon what it's like living with the kind of adversity that's got the three multipliers listed above.

I did look it up, and this photography permission issue is different in Quebec. Goes back to a 1988 incident in Montreal, and a 1998 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada. One blogger called it Canada's Most Controversial Photo.

I'm all about making up reasons and purposes after the fact. A secondary reason I came to Montreal was to have new experiences. This was so unexpected, and I have no clue how it might change me, but I'll keep a look out. Just now realizing something. It may have nothing to do with it, but in the hours since I've had a bunch of really nice interactions with several different people. For some reason I wasn't awkward today.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

VisiBone Paper Is Going Off The Air

I have stopped selling VisiBone paper products today to free up resources for another project. That project is called qiki. I think it could be a big deal. It will take some time before I have anything to show that will earn your strong aha. If you'd like to know when I do, then please follow this blog. And watch

VisiBone was a gas. The final tally was 62,060 products to 97 countries. The fan mail was enormously encouraging. I treasure the conversations and the connections. But it always took a lot of time and expense to keep up. I'm simplifying so I can make something better.

Qiki was envisioned as an ultra-slim wikipedia. Brief answers to direct questions. It was going to be the online version of the VisiBone quick reference cheatsheets. But that wasn't enough so it ballooned. Crowdsourced answers to crowdsourced questions. Now Stack Exchange has done a breathtaking job at that kind of thing haven't they? But something is missing before it can go to the next level. It's too siloed and it's too indirect making a living at it. So it ballooned again. I have a guess as to what's next, and I'd like to try it out.

It would be nice to start the Information Age. I see two obstacles. We never really figured out how to pay for information. I believe one day it will be both the joke and the punchline that we called the stuff intellectual property. This isn't anything like turnips or turbofans, information is deeply different.

Second, the challenges at hand require greater energy, wisdom, and integrity than any group can provide today. The biggest corporations and the biggest governments are already suspect, and our disappointment in them is rising. They are not up to tasks that are up front. I don't know how to make it all work, but I have an idea how to find out. That's what qiki will try to do. In very very small beginnings.

Hope you stay tuned.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

It Costs A Lot More Than It's Worth, And Yet There Is No Substitute

Gin must really be something.  Haven't tried it myself, but Stephin Merritt's song is spot-on in every other respect.  So that got me thinking about what other things are unjustifiable and irreplaceable too.  Besides Love and a Bottle Of Gin, what else requires so much time or money or tedious effort, or has so many odious consequences, that it hardly makes sense why anyone bothers?  And yet, you know, nothing else in the world comes close.
  • children
  • marriage
  • home
  • sex
  • sleep
  • travel
  • exercise
  • democracy
  • consensus
  • salt, before 1945
  • God, after 1859
  • communication skills
  • freedom of speech and press
  • randomized, double-blind trials
  • space exploration
  • thinking
In each case, even considering the cons outcount the pros, who would wish a world without it?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

We Be Social

From the Human Mirror mission,
©Improv Everywhere

Humans are social animals.  Glaring evidence is in the fact that subways work.  What creatures can you imagine packing into a metal tube, approaching the limits of breathing space, and then you shake it, and bang it around, and every one of them is like "We be cool."

First, they don't eat each other, even if most are carnivorous and some are very hungry.  That is a significant accomplishment, a vast refinement over the natural order.  There's virtually no killing or maiming.  Each comes out possessing the identical accoutrements with which they entered, a violation of this rule being rare and celebrated.  Even the most delicate etiquette of eye contact is by and large gracefully observed.

If you started reading this with a vague bristling resistance to the idea that a subway car is a paragon of civility, just think how much keener is the evidence then:  not only are humans hard-wired to get along peacefully with strangers, you are soft-wired to expect it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mouse Pad Elves

((First written 12/13/2009, then hid on the shame shelf, behind the cringe jar. Dusted off months later, long after all the old orders were filled along with many new ones.)) 

It feels fantastic to be emerging from late-product purgatory. I put a lot of customers through some egregious tests of patience with the hexagonal mouse pads. I believe I can see the gorilla with a flashlight and it is in fact the opening of the tunnel. I've just resolved ((again this was written 12/13/2009)) the last issue with being able to manufacture the mouse pads entirely in-house. It was long and dramatic and agonizing and here is my whiny story.

If the very idea of making mouse pads from scratch strikes you as fundamentally alien to the 21st century western hemisphere, well I feel your pain more than you could know. Googling for anything related to making mouse pads unleashes a cavalcade of schwag purveyors. I suspect more than 1% of Earth Domestic Product (EDP) goes into putting logos in landfills. Search for the raw materials? Answers are flooded with all the companies bragging about the features of their schwag. Schwag braggarts. (I like saying schwag so much that I even like to type it.) As further evidence that google is not omniscient, "Barely There" is the trademark for the ultra-thin non-skid substrate I use in my mouse pads, but it's also a million times more commonly a trademark for, er, this other stuff.  Very different stuff.  And if you want you can go find out for yourself, but I warn you it could be distracting.

So why should I fight the tide, why not do it the easy way, and (pretentiously leading question alert) why pretend there's anything special about the mouse pads I make? If I would only make mouse pads as everyone else does, I could sell them for $3 each and still make mostly profit. I'd order 10,000 at a time from China and they'd have all manner of outlandish special features and I'd never run out. If you work in print at all you know the limited color gamut of the CMYK ink printing process. Well I've gone to outrageous lengths to get beyond it, and it doesn't fit the schwag "industry" at all. I tried to communicate to suppliers in Asia that I need to print the paper for the mouse pads using a custom color process, ship to them, and they'd use that paper in the mouse pad, coating the top with a clear but friction surface, and the bottom with the nonskid pantyhose stuff, and ship the result back to me. Ok be honest, did you really follow that last sentence? Now imagine if English were not your mother tongue but merely your third-cousin, twice-removed, by-marriage-only-then-divorced tongue.

I had a supplier in California (without mentioning Diran Afarian of by name) who had been making the mouse pads for years and doing an excellent job. But last summer he finally gave up, returned all the prints to me and politely declined to try any further. My take was that he'd automated his shop so much to keep up with competition that my jobs required too much manual intervention. (Seriously, Diran is still a hero in my book for trying, and oh yes I did change the layout on him.) Finally I located some samples of the materials and tried to make the mouse pads by hand myself. Turns out that a U.S. penny has exactly a 3/8" curve radius, just like the corner rounding I had been using. I will let you imagine why that matters, but the point is the mouse pads came out looking pretty darn good despite humble methods. Though I needed some machinery if I was ever going to keep up.

Each time I changed mouse pad manufacturer in the past I'd have to pay a hefty "die charge" a particularly apt term. I thought dies were a big deal. A die is a strip of metal with a knife-sharp edge, curved into a special shape and pressed into a slot in a carrier, usually plywood. Turns out if you find the guy who makes them, they're not such a big deal at all. However, much bigger deals are the presses that push the die into the material and make the cut. Literally, tons are involved. They are very heavy, very dangerous, and very expensive. Or so I thought, until I discovered that the crafting industry has done some amazing things in recent years. I don't know how many people use those infomercial paper cutting machines, but there seems to be a lot of them, and some of the companies (not the infomercial ones) have made some gadgets that will last more than a weekend. In fact they come with a lifetime warranty.

So making mouse pads in-house had many challenges: (1) finding the materials (2) buying less than a shipload (about a dinghy load) (3) die (4) press.

((Updated 3/30/2010)) The fifth and funnest challenge was to get the upside-down materials to line up to the die when cutting. For this I actually got to make some electronical purty lights, thrashing the work/play boundary yet further. I'll explain this contraption if more than 2.5 people actually read this post. Basically, see the teeny red and blue lights at the corners? They line up with the pink and blue bullseyes.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Most Important Government Job

The most important job in the U.S. government now: Secret Service.

And I do not mean the counterfeiting guys. Though I realize they are busy too.