Here we go out of the sleep of mild people

Four years ago, I drove up to Portland, Oregon to make a new life and I fell entirely in love with every detail of the city. I loved exploring Portland and I found something new each time I looked.

I have a sense that the puritans never made it as far as Portland. In San Jose, the mayor is proud that they haven’t handed out a new liquor license in years. They just recycle the old ones. They make-believe it’s a virtue. In Portland, the mayor is named after a beer. In San Jose, bars are either dingy and shallow or new, shiny and shallow and when they die, they are replaced by another just the same. In Portland, bars spring up on every corner and reach for the sky as a tree in the rainforest reaches for the canopy and the sunlight beyond.  Undaunted by the diversity of what came before, new bars are excited and eager to become part of the diverse ecosystem where everyone feeds off everyone else’s success.

I loved the little details of the city. I loved finding the kind of place that has 27 beers on a blackboard, ranked by IBU and scribbled out as new beers are put on tap and old ones run dry. I loved that Portland has more strip clubs per resident than anywhere in the United States and I loved finding myself in the middle of a World Naked Bike Ride and seeing co-workers cycle by with a delighted wave. I loved going to the movies and being brought my dinner on a tray. I loved seeing the realtime display above the bar announcing who had just checked in on FourSquare and I loved that every new bar had three new beers that I had never previously tried.

My favourite bit of Portland was the New Old Lompoc on 23rd. It was the kind of crappy, divey, dingy bar that is always filled with real people and even when it wasn’t made you feel real. The Lompoc brewed their own beer and I began with the Condor because I had been warned that the hoppier IPAs would shrivel my labia. Condor gave me cramps in my calfs just like Courage Sparkling Bitter did all those years ago and like no other beer since. By the time I was done with Portland, I always looked for the hoppiest beer or the strongest beer on the blackboard, genitalia be damned. In Portland, I found barley wines and even, for the first time in 25 years, a prize old ale at Steve’s wonderful Cheese Shop that took me back to that tiny pub in Horndean.

On my first visit to the Lompoc, four long years ago, the waitress brought me my Portland Dip and a pint of Condor and smiled the brightest, widest smile I have ever seen outside of a Hollywood movie. Last Monday, the same waitress smiled the same bright smile as she delivered my labia-shrivelling Kick Axe at my last farewell to Portland before I departed for my new life back in San Jose. The Lompoc is closing down next week to make way for some nice new condominiums. They tell me that it will reopen in a couple of years, but it won’t be the same. It feels oddly fitting that the Lompoc will close down just as my love affair with Portland ends and my new life begins.

This week, I started a new job with a brand new startup. The kind of startup where everyone looks at each other and decides whether we should use Python or Ruby or, perhaps, Perl because no one has really thought about trivial details like which technology to use yet. The kind of startup where the furniture is scavenged from a previous tenant and where, if you want to talk to the CEO, you swing your chair around and talk to him. WebMD wasn’t an especially big company but, in many ways, it felt like the biggest company I had ever worked for and by the end it felt very safe and comfortable. It’s time for something a little more dangerous and exciting.

The title quote, by the way, is stolen from the book I am reading.

Here we go out of the sleep of mild people, into the wild rippling water.


I have seen the movie, Deliverance, three or four times already but no one ever told me I should read the book too until now. The writing sears my senses.

In many ways it reminds me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  There too, I had seen the movie so many times that I could almost recite the lines but the quality of the writing in the book just took my breath away. I was totally unprepared for how it would move me. I remember reading a paragraph of Cuckoo’s Nest and putting the book down gasping for breath at the audacity of the words and then rereading the paragraph to check that it was as good a second time. It almost didn’t matter whether the plot was good. He could’ve been writing about turnip farming and I’d still read it with joy for every root vegetable and planting.

Deliverance has that same quality. The movie catches a little of the delight of creating a scene where nothing happens but the nothingness is burned into your consciousness as when the albino kid joins Drew in Duelling Banjos. Who has ever seen the movie and forgotten that scene? It has nothing to do with the plot. The plot almost does not matter and those scenes keep coming and coming.

I am just at the point in the book where they put their canoes in the river, a little afraid of what’s around the next bend. For now, they know nothing of squealing like a pig or of what they will have to do to survive as their adventure turns dangerous but they have a sense that something important is going to happen.

I like to think that even if they knew all the things that might happen downstream, they’d still get in those canoes and paddle down that river and enjoy the thrill of the whitewater along with the calm certainty of future success. Anyone who has ever joined a startup knows the feeling of pregnant possibility and the quickening as the ideas swell and kick the new company into life.

It feels great to dip my paddle in new waters and to bend my bow knowing that the shot I fire will change the world. The rednecks hardly scare me at all.

Photo Credit: Naked Bike Ride by Stefan

Talking with the Quail about Escape Routes

I’m a huge fan of Radiolab. The episode that got me hooked was the one where they decoded the languages of prairie dogs and Diana monkeys.

Everyone knows by now, about the Diana monkeys who have different alarms calls for “leopard” and “eagle” and “snake”. If a monkey spots an eagle flying over, he’ll scream “eagle!!” and all the other monkeys will take cover. If a monkey sees a leopard, he’ll scream “leopard” and the other monkeys will run higher up the tree. Their words are not actully “leopard” and “eagle” of course. They are more like “eeeeeuuuugh! ooh oh ooh!” and “ooouuugh ooouuughoo”.

The segment on the Diana monkeys ends with the spine-tingling tale of how the researcher, while walking through the jungle, heard troop after troop of Diana monkeys screaming “eeeeeuuuugh ooh oh ooh! eeeeeuuuugh ooh oh ooh!” and he thought “silly monkeys! They think I am a leopard!”

I won’t spoil the ending. Go listen to it yourself so your spine can tingle too. Then listen to the one about america’s heroes or the one about animals showing empathy to humans and get hooked right along with me. Each show is a zany mix of interviews intercut with sounds effects and voice overs and they are mostly about some new aspect of science or psychology or philosophy that you previously did not know. Marvellous stuff.

That wasn’t my favourite bit of the show though. In another segment, a researcher analyzed prairie dog calls and discovered that they used different “words” when different men walked though their territory. The researcher was able to figure out that the prairie dogs had words for tall and short and blue and red. When someone walked by, they would say things like “here comes the tall man wearing blue!”.

The researcher rigged a pulley system so that he could drag coloured shapes across their territory and recorded the prairie dogs saying “big, blue triangle” or “small, red circle”. How cool is that? He learned the language of another species! Humanity has dreamed of this moment since Doctor Doolittle!

I felt a touch of the  Doolittle myself on Monday when The Quail Family stopped by for a visit.

We get quail in our garden nearly every day but on Monday, Ma and Pa Quail introduced us to their new chicks. All eight of them.

When we saw them through the window, they seemed to be on a mission. Ma and Pa did a superb job of keeping their little childers in line – better than Mr and Mrs Clown anyway – and hustling towards their destination, at least until they reached the corner by the fence.

Ma and Pa hopped up the twelve inches of our retaining wall and called “pipipipip” to encourage the littl’uns to hop up with them. But, either through obstinacy or the fact that there was no freaking way that those tiny bundles of fluff could jump that high, the baby quails stayed firmly where they were.

Ma and Pa got more and more impatient – “PIPIpipiPIP!” – and even tried to demonstrate the technique for jumping up onto a foot-high wall…you just hop… hop up… you hop…hop..you….dammit you little buggers! Get up here!

The fluff bundles looked up at their parents like they were eedjits [that sounds familiar – ed] “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot! How are we supposed to jump all the way up there?? What are we? SuperQuail?”

That was the point where we – the non-quail residents of Quail Creek Circle – decided to intervene.

You may remember the unfortunate affair of Mr and Mr Robin – the last time we tried to interfere in the lives of our feathered friends – and suspect that our intervention was not fated to end well. We suspected the same thing.

My first idea was to build a little quail staircase out of leftover pavers – the kind you might build if you had a salmon trapped in your pond – but I was scared that I’d freak Ma and Pa Quail into abandoning their offspring. Besides, once they cleared the retaining wall they still had an even bigger hop ahead of them to clear the fence.

Mrs Clown suggested picking up the fluff bundles in my hand one by one but, having recently witnessed the Twilight Temptation of Edward, I wasn’t sure I could overcome my carnivorous instincts with such a tasty avian snack in my hand.

Eventually, I decided to open the gate and let them walk out of the garden. To get to the gate, I had to walk quite close to the little snacks chicks and this naturally caused their parents a good deal of consternation. This is where my Doolittle instincts kicked in.

I noticed that Ma and Pa had pretty solid control over the movements of their tiny wards. Like shepherds in an avian edition of One Man and his Dog, they had the little chicks running hither and thither at their every peep.

I figured out that

chip-chip-chip-chip-chip-chip

meant

Hurry along my little ones!

and

cheep-pip-pip-cheep-cheep

meant

Huddle together in a little fluffy bundle!

Another command told them to spread out and forage. Still another had them scurrying for cover behind a huge rock when the big, bad human – and potential quail-eater – walked by.

Eventually, I opened the gate and the grateful parents hurried out calling for the younglings to follow. We bid The Quail Family a fond farewell for the day but my curiosity was piqued and I went to consult the literature on quail calls.

Sure enough, I found a paper, VOCAL BEHAVIOR OF ADULT CALIFORNIA QUAIL by H.Warrington Williams [1969].

THIS paper describes the calls of adult California Quail (Lophortyx californicus) in terms of their form, causation,and function. A later paper will report on the derivation of adult calls from the repertoire of the chick.
Previous studies of this species concerned with life history, habitat, food habits, and social behavior, placed little emphasis on vocal communication (Emlen and Lorenz, 1942; Howard and Emlen, 1942; Genelly, 1955; Raitt, 1960). Sumner(1935) provides the most complete listing of calls and the contexts in which they are given.

I learned a ton about quails and their vocalizations.

The adult California Quail has at least 14 calls. I have divided these into four categories modified from Collias (1960):   social contact, alarm, reproductive including agonistic and sexual, and parental. The causation and function of several calls vary with season and social context and are described under separate categories. I initially named each call by ortho-graphic description to avoid implications of function.

H. Warrington has tables and tables of data showing duration and frequencies of the calls as well as frequency plots of all 14. O! If only I hadn’t run away to sea, I could’ve spent my life recording quail calls (or Diana monkeys!) instead of writing software!

 

The calls were all right there in the paper.

Adults confined in adjacent individual cages and not in visual contact gave the call during active periods or after a disturbance. Birds that had been separated from a group or mate called ut ut loudly immediately following separation. This grades to the cu ca notes and finally to the complete cu ca cow sequence (Figure 2C). The ut note and the cu note of the cu ca cow call are similar in configuration (Figures 1 and 2).
Adults give a similar call sounding more like a mo mo mo to their chicks. The ut ut grades to the food call with the discovery of new food or movement of the group to the food hopper.

He covered alarm calls too.

The alarm notes of the California Quail are associated with the presence of aerial and ground predators, freezing following alarm, running away, and severe distress.
The pit pit call (alarm note).–Next to the cu ca cow, the pit pit call, a series of metallic-sounding pits (Figure 3A), is the most frequent call of the California Quail. Both male and female birds give the call at all seasons of the year with little variation among individuals or sexes.

Fortunately, although I frittered away my life writing software, I still have two offspring on which to project my frustrated hopes and dreams. I hope you like quails, little clowns!

pit pit pit!

Photo Credits

Quail photos: Mrs R. Clown
Diana monkeys photos: cburnett c/o wikipedia
Prairie dog photos: Baldur c/o wikipedia

Lists of Things

I read a book once where the protagonist made a list, at a young age, of certain pleasures that he wanted to save – read King Lear, visit the Bahamas, eat a durian – until he was 40. He didn’t want to use up all the good stuff too early, I suppose.

Here are some things that I have wanted to do before I die.

  • Join the Navy (check)
  • Live in Australia (had a job offer once. turned it down.)
  • Play Clair de Lune on piano (almost)
  • Backpack around the world (check)
  • Live on a boat (not yet. haven’t given up on this one.  navy doesn’t count.)
  • Go to Tahiti (check)
  • Leave the Navy (check)
  • Learn to speak French (got pretty good once – in Tahiti. forgot most of it.)
  • Live in a big city (check. London, New York. I’d like to do that again.)
  • Learn to surf (check. wasn’t very good at it though)
  • Start my own company (tried. failed)
  • Live way out in the countryside (fail. not sure I’d enjoy it anyway now)
  • Learn to speak Georgian (fail. I have no idea why I wanted to speak Georgian.)
  • Live in France (I have had two job offers and turned them down. Epic fail.)
  • Dive with one and a half somersaults (check)
  • Design an application that makes money (not yet)
  • Smoke opium (this is my end of life plan in case I need to relieve the horrible pain)
  • Learn to speak Indonesian (got pretty good once. forgot all of it.)
  • Get a degree (I’ll get back to this one day)
  • Own a convertible (check. miss it terribly. need another one.)
  • Design an application that people want to use (not yet)
  • Draw a portrait (check. forgot how.)
  • Sleep on a beach (check)
  • Score a goal from a bicycle kick (fail)
  • Take my wife to the places I travelled in my youth (not yet)
  • Enjoy a beer with my son (not yet)
  • Draw a nude (check. forgot how now.)
  • Play Marsha’s Mood on piano (fail)
  • Get married on a beach (check)
  • Go back and walk through the streets where I grew up (check)
  • Brew beer (check)
  • Live in the Caribbean (fail)
  • Take a life drawing class (fail)
  • Design an application to recreate physics experiments (not yet)
  • Live by the beach (Lived in sight of the ocean – ok. the English Channel – twice. I’d like to do that again.)
  • Live in a little village (fail)
  • Sing Heartbreak Hotel on stage (check)
  • Learn to make tapas (working on it)
  • Run a training company on a boat in the Caribbean (I still dream)
  • Swim on the Great Barrier Reef (check)
  • Decorate my study with drawings of my heroes (fail – never had a study)
  • Model for a life drawing class (fail)
  • 360 on a snowboard (check)
  • Frequent a pub where everybody knows my name (not for a long time)
  • Dance with my daughter (not yet)
  • Dive into the ocean from a very high place (check. almost killed myself)
  • Play guitar (working on it)
  • Own a country pub by a river (fail)
  • Get air in the halfpipe (check)
  • Visit a nudist club (check)
  • Take my kids to celebrate Christmas with family in England (before they are too old to appreciate it [too late? – ed])
  • Score from a free kick bent around a wall (still time)
  • Decorate my study in a 1930s colonial style (fail – never had a study)
  • Own a hamster (check)
  • Sail around the Greek islands (soon, i hope)
  • Go to Cambridge (fail)
  • Visit Tuscany (not yet)
  • Backside 180 mute (check)
  • Ride a horse into the ocean (check)
  • Write a book (fail. there are too many books in the world already)

Some things that I have tried to avoid:

  • Run a marathon (check)
  • Go to Chicago (close call – changed planes in the airport once)
  • Live in suburbia (epic fail)
  • Own a lot of stuff (fail)

Some things that I have started that I’d like to finish one day:

  • Program: Emulate a Zilog Z80 (so close)
  • Essay : Why I am Ceremonial Deist (couple more drafts to go)
  • Program: Evolution simulator (this will get me my Nobel)
  • Portrait: Wife (will have to re-learn to draw it’s been so long)
  • Article: Software Design is a Waste of Time (seemed like a good idea when I started it)
  • Web site : www.ceremonialdeists.com (to host essays by famous ceremonial deists)
  • Game: Massively-multiplayer online puzzle solving game (didn’t get very far with that)
  • Poem : Return to Wonderland (doubt I’ll ever get return to that)
  • Program: Play & recommend music from Rhapsody on my SqueezeBox (Making good progress. Just needs a physics engine.)
  • Web site: www.tremblr.com (Step 3: profit)
  • Game: A Question of Speed (the oldest unfinished item on my list)
  • Program : Physics Experiment Simulator (just started!)
  • Game: Diplomacy over IM (it works. just need to finish the UI)
  • Blog: Tales of a Submariner (not even sure what it was about now)
  • Blog: New wordpress theme (haven’t actually started yet. have to finish this post first.)

Some things that I really need to do soon:

  • Fix the waste disposal
  • Make Jazz a real pendulum drawing table
  • Buy some blinds for my room
  • Book trip to Barbados
  • Synchronize Jazz’s Sansa
  • File expenses
  • Renovate bathroom
  • Replace garden fence

Lost!

It was a warm, balmy evening last night, so Georgina and I decided to go out on the town. We got all dressed up in our finest rags – Georgina wore those long, dangly diamond earrings – and set off from our room in the residential hotel where we live determined to have a grand old time. We saw loads of people we knew on the stairwell on the way down to the lobby. There was that dude who was in my class in the 4th year at Chis & Sid and a few guys from the navy but the first people we spoke to were Aaron and his girlfriend (who was that girl?) who were both naked under their open trenchcoats. As far as I recall, this was the first time that I had ever dreamt about Aaron and it was definitely the first time I had seen him naked.

We quickly noticed that everyone was naked under their trenchcoats but this didn’t trouble us in the slightest. We were determined to have a grand old time.

When the barman at the restaurant where we stopped for a cocktail explained that it was National Naked Under a Trenchcoat Day, we were a little bit disappointed that we hadn’t known but we were having such a fun time that we soon forgot about it. This was the first time we gone out on our own in, like, forever.

When we returned to the hotel, the trenchcoat people were still there and we stopped to share some gossip. As I walked up the stairs chatting with Marty, I heard a huge cheer from behind me. Georgina had removed all her clothing and tossed it to me with a wink and a smile. I was so proud! Proud like the time I watched my new wife go skinny dipping on a deserted Jamaican beach while I kept a look out and watched the sun rise. “Looks like she is having fun!” said Marty as we continued up the stairs. When I turned back to admire my wife one more time, she had disappeared!

I looked everywhere for her, searching frantically from room to room. “Have you seen Georgina? Have you seen Georgina?” “We thought she was with you”, replied her shocked mother (she shocks easily).

I set out into the dawn of a deserted London to look for her. London had, of course, turned into a demolition site by now and the roar of the bulldozers and the tattered remnants of the wind-blown porno mags made my search seem very poignant. With my heart in my weary boots, I wandered from street to street angrily kicking aside the discarded bus tickets until – “Beep! Beep! Beep!” – the warning alarm of the reversing bulldozer transformed into the even sadder tone of my alarm clock telling me it was time to get up and go to work.

What a sad, sad start to the day.