The Terrible Mr Gooden

The line between a terrific teacher and a terrible teacher is a fine line indeed. So many of the very best teachers dance along the line with fancy steps on either side, changing the lives of students fortunate to be touched by their magic or cursed by their conceit. Mr Gooden was terrifying and a tyrant. He altered the course of my life more than any other teacher.

JK Rowling’s Severus Snape is the modern archetype of the terrific/terrible/terrifying teacher and Potter doesn’t know until the very end where Snape’s loyalties lie. The tyrannical teacher par excellence though is Miss Jean Brodie.

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Jean Brodie: “Little girls! I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.”

Maggie Smith’s terrifying teacher, long before Professors Snape and McGonegall and long, long before The Dowager Countess, was a fascist and an admirer of fascists. Miss Jean Brodie was inspired by Mussolini and Franco and inspired her “gells” to great heights; moulding and shaping their lives but ultimately dooming them to tragedy, sending them off to war and worse. Miss Brodie wielded charisma and conviction and certitude as weapons to inflict scorn and shame on her students. Snape too. But Mr Gooden had them both beat with charisma and conviction in abundance and he directed scorn and shame like guided missiles against a Palestinian hospital.

pink_floyd_3_wallpaperMr Gooden was an evangelical Christian and ran our school’s Good News Club, a welcome refuge from a rainy winter’s lunch break. To those who didn’t know him well, he had a reputation as a ferocious disciplinarian. To those lucky enough to have him for chemistry, he was a magical storyteller, bringing his subject to life and instilling a love of science that has lasted a lifetime. Mr Gooden, the chemistry teacher would be a shoe-in for Teacher of the Year. Mr Gooden the form teacher would merit a different award entirely.

Time for a quick sidebar to explain some features of English schools for American readers. JK Rowling captured a great many features of the British Grammar School with surprising fidelity. The sorting of First Years into houses to foster competition and team spirit is spot on (give or take a Sorting Hat) and, while we didn’t have Quidditch, we did have regular inter-house rugby, cricket and track/field tournaments (Lester forever!). Ordinary and Advanced Wizarding Levels are essentially O levels and A levels—the exams you take at age 16 and 18 that determine your success or failure in life. One big difference between an English school day and my American kid’s day is that we all travelled from class to class in a herd, only occasionally breaking ranks to split up for Latin or German. Our herd travelled everywhere together including, in our case, ice skating every Sunday and the occasional trip to Margate on the train. American kids (mine at least) miss out on that camaraderie and have to work harder for their friendships. That’s one thing that my school got right. The “Form” system made it so easier to build friendships and many of my friendships from that period have lasted a lifetime.

The official name for our herd was a ‘form’. Each form had a Form Room and a Form Teacher who started and ended each day with a roll call and was responsible for the discipline and life lessons that didn’t fall under the rubric of the curriculum proper. Our Form Teacher was a prominent part of our lives (like Professor McGonegall was for Harry, Ron and Hermione) and could make those lives great or awful according to their tastes. Mr Gooden was our Form Teacher for my second and third year of grammar school (7th & 8th grade for ‘mercans).

My first day in Form 2P was filled with trepidation. Mr Gooden’s reputation as a tyrant loomed but, like many a dictator, Mr Gooden up close was quite personable; charismatic even. Our days began with laughter and inspiration and I was soon grateful for a teacher that took an active interest in our lives. We were lucky to have Mr Gooden for chemistry too and he was a born showman in the chemistry lab. How well I remember the zinc and sulphur explosion! What better introduction to molecules than the oil drop experiment?

A whining aside: American kids are really cheated by not having any real science lessons until very late in high school, long after they have already decided that they don’t like science but right when they need to take a science class to graduate. By the time an English kid finishes school—at my school at least—he would have completed 7 years of each of physics, chemistry and biology if he were so inclined. My kids weren’t allowed to take more than one science class per year and science in middle school is just a joke.

Mr Gooden’s active interest in the form room extended to encouraging us all to donate to his special charity collection every Tuesday morning. Mr Gooden’s class was consistently the most generous in the school and he made sure that we all gave until it hurt, publicly shaming anyone who fell short. He also made sure we “volunteered” for any extra-curricular project that required work. Character-building stuff, I am sure and, considered in isolation, something to be commended. But eventually the constant pressure to “volunteer” for good deeds and give money for good causes became oppressive. But it was on disciplinary issues where Mr Gooden really crossed the line.

I’ll confess right now that I was not the most well-behaved child at Chis and Sid. I had more than the average number of detentions. The average number was close to zero but, when the headmaster announced the detentions in assembly every Tuesday and Thursday, a handful of offenders were named over and over. It was rare that the list of miscreants did not include some combination of Monroe, Harding, Winch or Lawrence. Detention began with a certificate signed by the offended teacher and counter-signed by the offender’s parents. Other schools had a punishment called detention but it was a pale imitation of the elaborate ritual of shame that Chis and Sid inflicted on its naughtier students.

Mr Gooden rarely gave out the official sanctioned punishment though. Mr Gooden’s justice was primal and personal. It began with a barrage of scorn for anyone who did not live up to his lofty expectations. He had a way of focussing his ray of humiliation on a single student while making every other student feel that they to had let him down. Class punishments were common but it was the private discipline that provoked the most fear.

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My first private chastening came after that episode in Ms Furey’s French class. I’ll confess again that I was often the naughtiest boy in her class. I spent much of third year French in the corridor outside Ms Furey’s classroom and far too many of my lunch breaks writing “Le silence aide le travail” 100, 200 or sometimes 500 times for some transgression or other. I wasn’t the only naughty boy in the class though and, on that particular day, far from the naughtiest. As I recall, on that terrible day, Martin and David were the instigators and at the peak of the mayhem most everyone in the class contributed to poor Ms Furey’s breakdown. I was, at worst, a part of the chorus, embarrassed by her tears.

When I received my summons though, I knew that evidence was not going to help my case. At roll call the next day, Mr Gooden said those dread words “Oh, and Kevin, I want to see you outside the Staff Changing Room at 12:15.” As anyone who has been on the receiving end of Mr Gooden’s wrath knows, the Staff Changing Room is where Mr Gooden kept his Size 14 Dunlop Green Flash plimsolls. The routine became depressingly more familiar with each punishment but the first time was special in its banality. First of all, the penitent (me) had to perform a series of stupid little tasks while Mr Gooden changed out of his track suit. Fetch me this. Bring me that. Deliver this thing. Next, you had to stare into those limpid pools of justice while he lectured you on the responsibilities and virtues required of a student at Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School. Finally, you had to take off your purple blazer, hang it on a coat hook and bend over to touch your toes while you waited for the Dunlop Green Flash to deliver the justice of the righteous Mr Gooden. The first whack was almost hard enough to knock me off my feet. The second and third came with increasing force as Mr Gooden got comfortable with his swing. Just three swings this time.

I forget the occasion for my second visit to the Staff Changing Room but it obviously was not sufficient because, on my third visit, the Green Flash plimsolls had been replaced by a cane and not one of those swishy canes like they used in old movies either. This was the kind of cane that the rule of thumb was apocryphally named for and each swing resulted in a thud rather than a swish leaving a welt of pink on my stinging backside. At least I was allowed to keep my trousers on.

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As far as I know, Mr Gooden’s extra-curricular punishments were entirely off the record and neither the school administrators nor our parents were ever aware of them. I certainly never told my parents and would not have received any sympathy if I had. Mum had too many stories of corporal punishment of her own to be impressed by mine. I often wonder if Mr Gooden would have got in trouble if anyone in authority had known what he was up to. The closest I came to telling anyone about it was when Paul Winch and I got to enjoy some double discipline.

I forget the exact crime this time around but Paul and I were kept back after class. I was sent to wait on the landing outside room 51 while Paul went in for the opening bout of punishment. I don’t know who started shouting first but their verbal missiles were soon joined by wooden ones as they began to curse and throw chairs at each other. First Paul would scream some obscenity and throw a chair or two then Mr Gooden would shout something back and throw more chairs. This continued for an eternity while I listened in terror, knowing that I was next. Mr Berry—Head of Chemistry and Mr Gooden’s boss— walked by just at that moment and asked me why I was still in school so late and why I was crying. I told him I was about to be caned but said nothing of the roar of Bedlam that continued above our heads. Mr Berry said something vaguely soothing, grabbed his coat and headed for home. I waited for my turn in the chamber of horrors.

Eventually the ruckus died down and Mr Gooden came down the stairs to tell me to wait by his car. Paul told me later that he had broken Mr Gooden’s cane. He must not have replaced it because I never felt its bite again and Mr Gooden switched to more psychological torments. Mr Gooden drove me home that day and made me wait in the car while he spoke with my mother. I’ve no idea what he said but, when I got inside, I told my mother “I don’t want to stay at Chis & Sid”. “I know”, she replied.

Not long after the chair-throwing episode, Paul went away to some kind of prison for young offenders.. By then I was totally disengaged from school and had vowed to leave at the earliest opportunity. I never did another lick of homework or took a another book home from school. In most classes, I did no work at all. No official work anyway. I read Homer under the desk in my Latin class and I coded in Basic in French class. Still I came first in my class every year. I need to explain that.

In American schools, most of one’s grade comes from the opinion of one’s teacher. In England of that era, one’s grade came entirely from how one performed in the end of year exams. End-of-year exams took three weeks and bore little resemblance to the pathetic little multiple choice tests that they do on this side of the pond. For each subject, there were two exams of three hours each. There was no “teaching to the test”, the bête-noir of American teachers. It was teach-teach-teach for most of the year then now-let’s-see-what-you-understand-you-little-fuckers.

I came first in my class at the end of the third year. I won a prize for the most improved student (last-in-class to first-in-class is hard to beat) and Mr Gooden was furious.

One of my teachers, Ms McDonnell was new to teaching and, frankly, not very good at it. She taught physics (my favorite subject) and she taught it very badly. I paid close to zero attention to her awful lessons and did less than zero of the work assigned. When the exam results were published, only two students in her class passed. I got 70% and John Burford got 57%. No one else got more than 34%. Mr Gooden made me stay in class for every break and lunch break until the end of term while I completed all the work that I had missed.

The last two years of Chis & Sid couldn’t pass fast enough.

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I had nothing more to do with Mr Gooden but by then I had a deep seated contempt for all teachers, even the good ones like Mr Lewis. We had a Mr (chemistry) Lewis and and Mr (biology) Lewis (AKA “Basher” Lewis) and (chemistry) Lewis was a genius. An outstanding chemistry (and rugby) teacher, I’ll always remember the day that he sat in as a substitute for biology when Basher was out sick. He asked us “So what topic are you supposed to be learning today?” “Cell-division” we replied. Mr (chemistry) Lewis proceeded to give the lesson on meiosis and mitosis far better than Mr (biology) Lewis ever could. I really felt that I had let him down when he reviewed my chemistry exercise book and I had done only two pages of work in two years.

When ‘O’ levels came around I came equal first with three other students all of whom went to Oxford and Cambridge. But I was already out of there, headed for life in a different colour blue. In my 16 year old head, I thought that the Navy would be more of a challenge than two more years of school and ‘A’ levels.

How stupid I was.

Epilogue

I did four more years of schooling in the Navy and the exams were just appallingly, trivially easy. I even did ‘A’ level maths in my spare time just to make sure my brain had not completely rotted (it took me six weeks and I got an A). I often wonder what path my life might’ve taken if I’d gone to Cambridge instead.

Thanks Mr Gooden. You changed my life.

Fire! Fire! Fire!

Hearing the reports and interviews about the San Francisco plane crash brought back a long lost memory.

I had just turned 21 when I joined the nuclear submarine HMS Revenge. I was one of two petty officers responsible for all the sonar systems on board. The other dude, Mark, was a year or two older than me. As you can probably imagine, sonar systems are pretty important to a submarine so it was a big responsibility. But no one on a sub has just one job. I had four. My main watch-keeping position was OPSO.

If you have ever seen a movie of a submarine in action – wait!…. here’s one!… – you may have noticed that there are five key roles in the control room of a sub and one more further back in the engine room.

This is a recruitment film deviously crafted to tempt disaffected but smart young men to run away from home and become engineers in the Royal Navy [they got me! – ed] Skip to 17:10 to see a submarine that may very well be HMS Revenge. Fun fact: The sub on the inside is different from the one on the outside!

The officer of the watch (OOW) – or the captain during tricky manoeuvres – is in charge of the whole boat and makes all the tactical decisions and the other four folks report to the OOW. The after-planesman is responsible for steering and keeping depth, a responsibility he shares with The Panel watch-keeper (open main vents, sir!) who continually monitors the submarine’s trim, opening and closing valves to keep the boat level. Back aft, the stokers take care of the main engines and generators and, of course, the nuclear reactor. Last, and very definitely not least, there is OPSO. Me.

When a sub is underwater – which is most of the time – it is almost completely blind. That thing you hear in movies with the Ping! Blip! of the sonar every 10 seconds does not actually happen these days. Soviet submarines used active sonar but NATO boats didn’t (if you hear a sonar ping in the middle of the North Atlantic, it’s probably from a Russian boat or a surface ship) so the only way to know what was out there was to listen very carefully.

HMS Revenge at dawn
HMS Revenge at dawn

 

Most of the listening was done by 16 year old boys with headphones and they would report everything they heard – carpenter fish; snapping shrimp; underwater pigs; other ships – and (if it was a ship) a guess at their speed from the sound of its propellers. We had no range information at all. We could guess the distance of a ship based on how much its bearing changed but even that was of no use if the ship was coming straight at us. If a ship had cut its engines, we wouldn’t even know it was there. OPSO’s job was to keep track of all the targets reported by the sonar department -including all the whales and dolphins and fishing boats that would start their engines, motor for ten minutes then cut their engines – and recommend a safe course to the OOW. Oh and – this at the height of the cold war remember – listen out for enemy submarines. So, while OPSO was my job #2, and actually took most of my working hours, job #3 was the most glamorous.

Polaris Missile Launched from HMS Revenge
Polaris Missile Launched from HMS Revenge

When a ballistic missile sub is called upon to fire its weapons of armageddon (weapons of mass destruction does not quite capture the extent of the horror) the submarine makes a lot of noise, instantly announcing its presence to every enemy submarine for hundreds of miles and its role changes instantly from dealer of destruction to recipient of it and the boat needs to defend itself to survive. My job #3 was, as torpedo guider, to kill those other submarines before they killed us. Lots of video game practice helped honed my torpedo-guiding skills.

If job #3 was most glamorous, job #4 was the most terrifying as I was in the attack squad of the firefighting team. Fires happen surprisingly often on ships and submarines and they are quite dangerous, what with all the hydraulics and the fuel and the explosives everywhere. We’d be called out to fight a fire at least once a week and maybe once a month it’d be a proper scary fire.

One big difference between a ship and a submarine is that on a ship – at least, on the destroyer I served on – when there is a fire, only the designated fire-fighting team has to react to it. Everyone else just carries on eating their dinner or cleaning the bathrooms or whatever. On a submarine, fires are a much bigger deal and the whole crew joins in the fun of fighting the fire.

There are two main sections to the firefighting team. One team dresses up in  fearnought suits – big woolly suits that keep you toasty warm even when you are not walking into a fire – ready to do the main work of fighting the fire with the main hose and a waterwall. The attack team just grabs a flimsy little mask and a fire extinguisher and runs into the blaze while the main team is suiting up.

I remember my first big, super-scary fire in an auxiliary machinery room (AMR) filled with diesel generators. We had already had several little fires since I joined the boat, but they were little affairs and extinguished quickly. There was always a kind of anti-climax after the excitement of the  Fire! Fire! Fire! on the Tannoy and the scrambling to grab a mask and get to the fire first, when the first dude on the scene was able to put out the fire straight away. This one was different though and it was clearly going to be a big deal.

At the Fire! Fire! Fire! alarm, I ran as usual to grab my mask from the pile but, as I reached for the very last mask and steeled myself for the battle ahead, a burly stoker PO named Mitch, 15 years my senior, put his hand on the same mask. He looked me in the eye and said “I think you’d better let me have that, son”. I didn’t argue and he ran into the burning AMR leaving me mask-less and safely away from the flames. No one died that day and the fire was extinguished without too much drama but, ever since then, I have had a healthy respect for people who run into burning buildings for a living. That memory came back to me this morning when I read the interviews of the first responders to the plane crash at San Francisco Airport over the weekend.

From KQED,

Firefighters said they encountered smoke, leaking jet fuel and passengers coming down on chutes when they arrived. Lt. Christine Emmons said Monday at the news conference that she and her partner ran up a chute into the plane and found four passengers trapped in the back. The conditions in the plane were changing rapidly, with the fire coming down on rescuers and the smoke thickening as the trapped passengers were pulled out to safety, she said.

Lt. Christine Emmons
Lt. Christine Emmons

and

Lt. Dave Monteverdi, who had also run up the chute, said someone had to be extricated after one of the bulkheads fell on top of him. When the firefighters entered the plane, they were surprised to find San Francisco police Officer Jim Cunningham already there, not wearing any protective equipment. Several of the public safety officers who spoke gave him a special shout-out for heroism. Police Lt. Gaetano Caltagirone also entered the plane, following Cunningham. “I couldn’t let him go inside the plane and just be there by himself,” he said.

People who fight fires for a living are amazing but I have a special regard for whose who, like flight attendants Lee Yoon-hye and Kim Ji-yeon have firefighting as job #4 – after handing out ginger ale, picking up your trash and getting unruly passengers to please turn off their electronic equipment now.

From Yahoo News

One flight attendant, Kim Ji-yeon, 30, put a scared and injured elementary schoolboy on her back and slid down a slide, said Lee, in the first comments by a crew member since the crash of the Boeing 777. A pilot helped another injured flight attendant off the plane after the passengers escaped.

Jiyeon Kim
Jiyeon Kim

Lee herself worked to put out fires and usher passengers to safety despite a broken tailbone that kept her standing throughout a news briefing with mostly South Korean reporters at a San Francisco hotel. She said she didn’t know how badly she was hurt until a doctor at a San Francisco hospital later treated her. When Lee saw that the plane was burning after the crash, she was calm. “I was only thinking that I should put it out quickly. I didn’t have time to feel that this fire was going to hurt me,” she said. Lee said she was the last person off the plane and that she tried to approach the back of the aircraft before she left to double-check that no one was left inside. But when she moved to the back of the plane, a cloud of black, toxic smoke made it impossible. “It looked like the ceiling had fallen down,” she said. http://news.yahoo.com/asiana-attendant-describes-dramatic-evacuation-101658097.html

Brave people, firefighters. Especially when they are flight attendants too.

Burning Plane at SFO
Burning Plane at SFO

Always go to the funeral – redux

A few years ago, the wife of a dude I used to work with died. I didn’t really know him well – and his wife not at all – but word got around and a friend of mine said “are you going to the funeral?” I said “well, no probably not. I didn’t really know him that well. I feel like I would be intruding.” My friend told me “That’s really not the point. It’s not about who knows him. It’s about being there.” and he sent me a link to an essay on the Internet called ‘Always go to the funeral’. It’s an amazing essay and it changed my mind about a lot of things to do with religion.

Here’s a little snippet.

On a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.

http://thisibelieve.org/essay/8/

Among my circle of friends, we have have adopted this rule and have a little ceremony when someone dies, that goes like this.

“Are you going to the funeral?”
“What’s the first rule of funerals?”
“Always go the funeral.”
“See you there!”

Now it’s my turn.

My Dad died last week and I am so very, very sad. We now have a big family debate about how to honour his passing. Dad fulfilled a long-standing ambition to retire to Spain (actually – he always said Portugal, but Spain is right there next door) and, after decades away, my family is worried that there is no one left who remembers him to remember his passing. There’s also a bit of a debate as to whether whether a christian memorial service is appropriate for a man who did not have a religious bone, vein or gristle in his body.

The Spaniards were very efficient with the cremation. The cremation was not even a thing but now we want to do something with a bit more significance and the choices at hand are:

  1. Scatter ashes in Footscray Meadows – the scene of many of a childhood memory.  Dad taught me to fish there. Most of my early misdeeds were there. That’s the first place I ever tried to cycle across a river. I have very fond memories of Footscray Meadows.
  2. Memorial service at the church in Rectory Lane. It’s the only church I really know well. My Dad was married there (first time round) and I was christened there along with my brothers and sisters. My grandmother was buried there a couple of years back.

The nub of the debate is whether it is inappropriate – disrespectful, even – to a man who was not so much an atheist as a never-really-gave-religion-any-thought-iest to give him a memorial service in a church. Here’s my response.

I am the biggest atheist I know but I think the one thing that religions do well is a funeral. Secular funerals feel kind of empty to me – like they are missing the point. I think the best kind of funeral connects you with two thousand years of western tradition and then sends you to the pub where you drink Guinness and laugh about the awful couch that your parents had in the 1970s and the good times that you shared and then you cry about the loss that you all feel. That’s a funeral. Scattering ashes in a park is not quite the same for me.

My sister Carol researched our family tree a few years back. She traced our heritage back many generations – back into the 16th century – and discovered that no one in our family moved more than two or three miles from Footscray in all those centuries. But in a generation or two we have scattered to the four winds. I have cousins all over England and Northern Ireland and in France and Australia and we made it all the way to California. My dad’s family was not from Footscray though. His was from way, way north – about 4 or 5 miles north- in Eltham.

So, is it appropriate to give a decidedly non-christian from Eltham a Christian memorial service in Footscray where all his children were born and christened? I can’t think of anything more appropriate.

My sister is a bit worried that it’ll be just us there in that church – four sad children remembering the life of a very special man and the very special lady who took care of him during his most vulnerable days. If it’s just us, it’ll be wonderful. But I’m willing to bet that there will be more than a handful of folks who remember us and are willing to fill the empty pews behind us. I hope you’ll read that essay and remember the edict: Always go to the funeral. I’ll buy you a Guinness if you come. You can buy me one too.

I’ll never forget the moment – at my nephews’ christening where my sister and I had to renounce Satan and all his works and we looked at each other and my sister said something like “This is the bit where we get struck by lightening or arrested for perjury “.  But I feel very grateful for the privilege of being a godfather even if neither I nor more my god sons believe in God. Religious ceremonies are not about religion, they are about ceremony and tradition and the Church of England does those particularly well.

That little church in Footscray is like a Tardis for me. Sitting in those pews transports me back through my memories and even further back into the memories of so many centuries past.

I shared some of these thoughts once before in Don’t Break the Chain. I imagine a chain of tradition and mythology stretching back for a thousand years and we shouldn’t be the ones to break it. It’s too precious.

A Fresh Look

It’s hard to miss Terry Gross if you are a commuter in Silicon Valley. As much as I intend to leave the office in time to hear the endlessly entertaining Kai Ryssdal, by the time I have shut down the computer each evening and made it to the car, seven o’clock has crept up on me and it’s time for the far less entertaining Terry Gross with FRESH Air. Just the way she says it annoys me.

Songs for Young LoversRoger Ebert died this week and one of the best things about famous people dying is that Terry Gross always has an interview with them from 1987 when the famous person was at the pinnacle of their abilities and Terry Gross sucked a little bit less at interviewing. Of course, Terry had several interviews with Roger and even one with Siskel and Ebert together that was quite delightful.

I appreciate Terry Gross’s interview recycling because I’ve long had a theory that we have an obligation to remember great people before they got old even, or especially, when we only ever knew them as old or infirm. Inside every old person is a young person who doesn’t really understand that he’s old now. We should all make a better effort to get to know the young person.

My favourite example is Frank Sinatra. People of my generation think of Frank Sinatra as an old man who sang romantic songs in an old man’s voice. Close your eyes and conjure up Ol’ Blue Eyes singing My Funny Valentine. Did you picture someone like who looked like this?

Old Frank
Old Frank

Sorry, you got the wrong guy. Songs for Young Lovers was recorded in 1953 . When Frank was in the prime of his superstardom in the 40s, he looked like this.

Young Frank
Young Frank

And… he had the same voice as that old guy!

The next time you play some romantic Frankie tunes, don’t make the mistake of imagining that old dude whose voice your grandmother was partial to. That’ll snuff out your spark of romance in no time.

Imagine this guy instead.

Young Frank
Young Frank with Hot Young Grandmother

You can play this game with a whole geriatric ward of interesting old folks. That dude who sang Heartbreak Hotel? He wasn’t an overweight lounge lizard in a sequined white jumpsuit.

It was this guy.

Elvis, Heartbreaker.
Elvis, Heartbreaker.

The Man in Black – another guy who sounded ancient?

The Man in Black
Walking the Line in 1956

Who else sounds ancient? Oh yes, the inspiration for a thousand blog titles, Mr Bob Dylan. The guy who sang Blowing in the Wind looked like this.

Bob Dylan
How many roads, Bob?

Roger Ebert’s very best writing flowed when the tributaries of underground memories trickled into his stream of thought as in this meandering tale wandering through the London of his youth and his later battle with infirmity.

On my imaginary walk I could have turned right at the end of Jermyn and walked up St. James to Piccadilly, and down to Park Lane, and up toward Notting Hill, and I could have passed the Mason’s Arms on my way to Pembridge Square and nodded while passing the Hyde Park West Hotel, where I had a tiny room with a window that opened to allow me to stand on a wide roof overlooking London. I could have had lunch at Costa’s, behind the Gate at Notting Hill, the famous movie theater. Or headed on west to Lord Leighton’s House. Or I could have simply walked out the far end of Pembridge Square and stopped for lunch at the Sun in Splendor– the Evening Standard Pub of the Year in 1968. Why do I know that?

I realize this could get boring. It probably already has. I’ll try to get to my point. Sometimes when I write, you understand, it’s like when I walk around London. When I set out I have a general destination in mind, but as I poke around this way and that, I find places I didn’t know about and things that hadn’t occurred to me, maybe glimpse something intriguing at the end of a street, which is how I found Chiswick House, which I had no idea existed.

We should all do Roger a favour and banish the old chubby with the missing jaw from our imagination. Remember, instead, the young chubby who always wanted to be a great writer and be thankful that he achieved his dream.

A young, aspiring writer
A young, aspiring writer

During the Fresh Air interview mash-up, one interviewee said that the secret to Ebert’s movie reviewing was that he didn’t much care how good a movie was; he cared how much he enjoyed it. His writing was like that too. I’ve been following Ebert’s blog for several years and he always gives the impression that he is writing to delight himself and his delight is infectious. I adore the way he wanders off topic into his own memories and shares them with such simple clarity that they become mixed in with your own.

Reading an Ebert story inevitably makes me want to write one of my own but, as I have a rather busy weekend of me, I’ll have to settle, Terry Gross-style, for replaying a favourite story or two that I stumbled across this morning when I happened to click this link.

The first is about the damage that hidden shame can wreak. Ebert takes a passage from his review of The Reader and turns it into a recollection about a shameful passage in his own history.

Roger Ebert has written a powerful, meandering essay about shame. The essay takes many twists and turns and each one of them is fascinating journey in its own right.

It starts out as a review of the movie The Reader

I was watching Tony Scott on the Charlie Rose program, and he said, in connection with “The Reader,” that he was getting tired of so many movies about the Holocaust. I didn’t agree or disagree. What I thought was, “The Reader” isn’t about the Holocaust. It’s about not speaking when you know you should.

My Deepest Shame

The second is about the limits of empathy and the terrible thinks that happen when your empathy is too limited.

That brings me back around to the story of the school mural. I began up above by imagining I was a student in Prescott, Arizona, with my face being painted over. That was easy for me. What I cannot imagine is what it would be like to be one of those people driving past in their cars day after day and screaming hateful things out of the window. How do you get to that place in your life?

A Beautiful Mind

In every Ebert story, there is always a whispered shout-out to some character from the past who had an influence on his life. Roger, you are in my past now but, muse be willing, the influence of your stories will live on in mine.

The Gift of a Book

When I was 20, my girlfriend’s brother bought me Bleak House for my birthday saying “I love buying books for people who will get pleasure from them.” I’ve flirted with Bleak House more times than I can remember but there is always some other book ready to steal my affections.

Bleak House at Broadstairs. The scene of many a childhood misadventure
Bleak House at Broadstairs. The scene of many a childhood misadventure

I’ve been through a substantial proportion of the Dickens canon in the last thirty years – and loved every one! – but, somehow, something about Bleak House keeps me from making that final commitment. But Colin! Believe me when I say that I am so grateful for your gift and your faith in me and, one day, I will prove myself worthy of your kindness.

I have been a committed reader since I first learned ITA and I formed the habit of keeping 5 or 6 books on the go soon after. I keep my active books in a pile by my nightstand, each waiting for the privilege of being the next to come to bed with me. I’ll sample a little of each until one seduces me, whispering I am the one, and commits me to reading on on on until the finish.

R. Dragon took me on flights of fantasy.

In the early days of my reading adventure, Green Smoke and The Little Wooden Horse and The Magic Faraway Tree were my night-time companions but, these days, Mr Bezos’s magical device sends me sample after sample to tease me and tempt me into making that brief, literary commitment. I do still have a few pre-electronic books on my nightstand, waiting for their turn to join me in bed and one of them is Bleak House, waiting longer than Pip waited for Estella – nearly 30 years now – for a turn under the covers.

On the RoadOther friends have had more luck giving me books. Matt currently holds the title Most likely to buy me a fantastic book, a title he first earned with On The Road, telling me “I hesitate to give you this, because you might just take off and leave me behind”. In the end, it was he that took off and I stayed put, probably to both our chagrin(s). Matt has since bought me several books out of the blue and every one was a winner. I have tried repaying his complement on more than one occasion, but I fully expect my attempts to settle the debt are still piled on his nightstand.

Another memorable book-shaped gift came from Colin’s (and therefore Fiona’s) brother-in-law Rod. I can’t tell you how many times I re-read Fungus the Bogeyman and I’d be more than a little ashamed to tell you how many times it made me cry.Fungus the Bogeyman

Perhaps the best ever surprise book came from an unusual source. When I was 15, my dad who, as far I know, never actually read a book, bought me Principles in Organic Chemistry, a second year (american) college textbook. I say my dad bought it for me, but what I almost certainly mean is that my stepmother bought it for me. Sue, if you are reading, I don’t know how you ever thought to buy me that book and I have been meaning to ask you since forever. That book was perfect for my fifteen-year-old self as, at the time, I loved chemistry and I read it over and over. I still remember all the methyl-, ethyl-, propyl- prefixes and the difference between an -ene and an -ane and how Americans had different names for everything (and still do!). I’ll forever be grateful. I wish I still possessed that book just as I wish I still possessed the Joy of Frogs (think: Joy of Sex but with frogs) that you bought me the year before.

Michael Freeman's 1000th book on photography.
Michael Freeman’s 1000th book on photography.

It’s a little bit sad that I have no one to buy books for these days. Mrs Clown reads occasionally, but not any book that I would ever think to buy for her. I have bought her many a book but our secret agreement is that I buy the book for her, read it myself and then tell her what’s in it. She particularly enjoyed me reading Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Mind.

My biggest little clown couldn’t get enough of books when he was an even littler clown but one too many deadly earnest Great American Novels For Children doused his passion for books in elementary school. I seem to recall that Little House on the Prairie provided the final bucket of water that killed the flame forever. The other little clown still enjoys reading in theory but, in practice, has too many electronic temptations to sit patiently with something so old-fashioned as a book and certainly wouldn’t let people from another generation recommend books for her.

It’s a great shame because I so desperately want them to love the books that I love. I am still able, across the vast generation gap that separates us, to choose a movie and force them to sit still (put that phone down!) through those crucial first 15 minutes until the plot grabs them and drives the electronic temptations from their minds but it’s a skill I have to use sparingly because, although my success rate is impressively high, I feel that a little of my influence drains away each time I use it.

Only for children who love dogs

One small clown still trusts me to recommend TV series for us to watch together despite the attempts at sabotage by the other two but my book-recommending mojo is, I fear, gone forever. I still have full confidence in my ability to choose a book for my little ones, but I have no confidence that they will actually open it and let the words cast their magic spell. One little clown, just last week, even made it all the way through one of my favourite books from my childhood but I have no evidence at all that the Call of the Wild was ever more than mere words on a page for her.

If I had a teenage daughter to recommend books for, I would certainly recommend that she read The Bell Jar. OK, maybe I’d wait until she was a little older so she could appreciate the wit and the delicious cynicism more completely, but I have no doubt that she would love it and that it would change the way she thinks about life. It’s always risky to recommend a book when you are only half way through but I am sufficiently moved by the first half that I wanted to put down my Kindle for long enough to write how much I’m enjoying it.

Sylvia Plath, for me, has always been a footnote in Ted Hughes’s biography. Mr Banks, my teacher for the last two years of primary school, was a Ted Hughes pusher and if we weren’t reading poems about attent, sleek thrushes on the lawn, we were making enormous collages about The Iron Man but I didn’t know anything about his wife, Sylvia Plath, except the thing with the oven. I understood that a certain kind of american feminist held Hughes responsible for her death but I never understood why they cared so much about her death in the first place. Now I do. She’s a brilliant writer.

I’m not much of a feminist myself – and I’m even less of one after the PyCon thing last week – but if I were a woman and a feminist, I think I’d want to be the kind who succeeds because she’s great at what she does, not because she’s a feminist and Plath was a great writer and she tells a story that I know well. I hear she’s pretty good at poetry too, and that’s where my reading adventure will take me next.

The Bell Jar

What’s your trick, Python?

The folks who wrote Pragmatic Programming recommend that you learn a new language frequently because, with each language, you’ll learn a new trick or a new way of thinking about programming that you never thought of before. When you go back to your old language you’ll take your new trick with you. Last year, I learned Objective C.

There is a lot to hate about Objective C. When I first started learning it, I felt like I had been time-warped back to 1987 along with some aliens from the planet Zarg but, over the last year, the language has improved so dramatically and so many of the rough edges have been smoothed that I could almost recommend it.

It’s still an ugly language, of course. The moments when you are confronted with bits of C in the middle of your Objective C method are like discovering that your ice cream topping is cod-liver oil.

It’s verbose too. The libraries feel like they were designed by colonial administrators in early-nineteenth century India. But, with automatic reference counting (ARC), it is no longer daunting to programmers who have forgotten how to alloc and dealloc.

Objective C has a couple of nice tricks though. My favourite is the fact that nil is an object and you can call its methods. In most languages, this would explode (or at least start a small fire):

collection = nil;
for (int i = 0; i < collection.length; i++) {
  id item = [collection objectAt: i];
  [item doSomething];
}

but it’s perfectly natural in Objective C. You can happily call methods on nil, it will return nil or 0 so you can just get on with your work without dodging NullPointerExceptions at every turn.

I like Objective C’s syntax for calling methods too, strange as it is. There is something heart-warming about the way that the method name wraps itself around the arguments so that in,

[object populate: collection
        fromFile: filename]

the method name is actually populate:fromFile:. It feels more comfortable than named arguments, in my humble opinion, and the way Xcode wraps the method call and aligns the colons makes it easy to read. If only the method names weren’t designed by colonial civil servants who mistook verbosity for clarity, it would be pleasant even. The names in the Cocoa libraries have that odd do the needful feel about them, like the authors learned grammar in a faraway country, probably one with steam trains, punkah wallahs and government forms in triplicate and it’s hard to love a language that doesn’t have a syntax for accessing array elements.

Ruby is the biggest trickster of them all. My only complaint about that language is that sometimes – especially in Rails – the whole language feels like one big trick. Every time I come back to it, I am constantly saying – “Wow! You can do that? That is awesome! Wait! How does that work again?”.

Ruby taught me blocks:

collection.each { |item|  item.do_something }

Sure, every language has blocks or lambdas these days, but there is just something very soothing about the simplicity of Ruby’s syntax that puts me at ease. In C#, I have to concentrate really hard to get the syntax right and, in Objective C, I doubt there is anyone in the world who remembers how to make a callback without looking it up online. I like to imagine that there was one primordial Objective C block written in a prototype at One Infinite Loop in 1994 and it has been copy-pasted ever since.

The trait I like most about Ruby is its humanity. If it seems like you can do something, you can. All these expressions work and do exactly what you might expect:

2.years.ago
3.times { print 'Ho! ' }
Date.today + 5.days
[1..100].each do |number|
  puts "#{number} is even." if number.even?
end

If only the Objective C folks would glance at the Ruby libraries and learn that terse does not have to be obscure and that verbosity is not intrinsically a good thing. Just ask the COBOL people.

A couple of years ago there was a debate online about the relative benefits of adding methods to objects to make a programmer’s life easier. The proposition was that such methods result in bloat which makes the API harder to learn but, really, how can you seriously argue that this:

if( array.length > 0 )
  element = array[array.length-1];

is more humane than this:

element = array.last

Meta-programming takes the Ruby language into the astroplane where the angels live and foolish mortals tread carefully. Here’s a builder for generating an xml file:

xml.slimmers do
  @slimmers.each do |slimmer|
    xml.slimmer do
      xml.name slimmer.first_name
    end
  end
end

And here’s the code for parsing some xml (OK, it’s not meta-programming but it is neat and tidy):

xml = File.read('posts.xml')
parser = XML::Parser.new
doc = parser.parse xml
doc.find('//posts/post').each do |post|
  puts post['title']
end

In Objective C, that would be over 7 million lines of code.

C# learned all of Java’s tricks and smoothed away its rough edges. It added lots of little tricks of its own to make it at least 9% better than Java. But its big, new trick is LINQ.

LINQ is essentially a functional language rammed right in the middle of a curly-braced imperative language. Once you get the hang of it, it’s amazing. I never did get the hang of it though and wrote all of my LINQ by typing it out in longhand and then clicking the helpful green squigglies that cause Resharper to turn this:

public IList<Album> FindAlbumsToGiveAway(IList<Album> albums)
{
  var badAlbums = new List<Album>();

  foreach (Album album in albums)
  {
    if (album.Genre == "Country")
    {
      badAlbums.Add(album);
    }
  }
  return badAlbums;
}

into this:

public IList<Album> FindAlbumsToGiveAway(IList<Album> albums)
{
  return albums.Where(album => album.Genre == "Country").ToList();
}

or, more ambitiously, into:

public IList<Album> FindAlbumsToGiveAway(IList<Album> albums)
{
  return from album in albums
         where album.Genre == "Country";
         select album
}

if I was in a functional mood (example stolen shamelessly from Alvin Ashcraft).

To achieve its lofty status of 9% better than Java, C# has had to add about 83% more syntax and therein lies its downfall. There is no way that one person can fit all that syntax into their brain unless he dedicates a lifetime to learning it, and why would anyone do that when there are so many finer languages to learn?

Less syntax is more, et cetera paribus, and this:

frequency = {}

is nicer than this:

Dictionary<string, int> frequency = new Dictionary<string, int>();

which brings us to Python, the language where whitespace is syntax.

At first blush, significant whitespace is Python’s big trick. There’s no need to add loop delimiters; just indent correctly – and you were going to do that anyway, right? – and Python will know what you mean. Once you get used to it, indenting loops is just so easy and obvious that you wonder a) why all the other languages didn’t copy it years ago and b) if Python has a better trick for me to learn.

Since Ruby, I am no longer impressed by parallel assignment,

a,b = 2,3

or generators,

def fib():
     a, b = 1, 1
     while True:
         yield a
         a, b = b, a + b 

sequence = fib() 

sequence.next()
>>> 1 

sequence.next()
>>> 1 

sequence.next()
>>> 2

or default values for arguments,

def f(a, b=100):
  return a + b

f(2)
>>> 102

or the myriad other ways that Ruby and Python are more pleasant to use than Java or C# (OK. I am a still a little bit impressed by generators).

List comprehension is a nice little trick,

numbers = range(1..100)
squares = [x*x for x in numbers]

but it’s not dramatically better than Ruby’s collect method,

numbers = 1..100
squares =  numbers.collect { |x| x*x }

or C#’s,

var numbers = Enumerable.Range(4, 3);
var squares = numbers.Select(x => x * x);

(OK, it’s a lot better than C#’s)

In fact, Python is so similar to Ruby that I feel forced to compare based on æsthetic terms alone and, æsthetically Python loses big time. If Guido and Matz were cousins, Guido would be the awkward, bookish cousin who is perfectly happy typing underbar underbar init underbar underbar open paren self close paren colon instead of initialize. Python has a strong mark of the geek about it.

Python also throws a lot of exceptions and you can barely shake a stick without causing a ShakenStickException. I mean, honestly, what is exceptional about getting something from a hash without checking to see if it’s in the hash first? Even Java gets that right, for Gosling’s sake!

Python’s inclination to hurl exceptions at the slightest provocation has cured me of the last traces of a youthful folly that said you should write the happiest of happy paths inline and put the rarer cases in exception handlers. Exceptions are nasty things and shouldn’t be tossed around lightly and guard clauses are not much better. The PragProgs (again) have a coding kata that requires you to minimize the number of boundary conditions in the implementation of a linked list. It’s a fine aspiration and finessing boundary conditions seems to result in less complexity and complexity is where the bugs hide.

The one Python feature that I haven’t seen anywhere else is the tuple. They are said to be magnificent and the distinction between

[1,2,3]

and

(1,2,3)

is allegedly profound but so far the significance escapes me. I’d be delighted if a commenter would help me understand or point me to some other feature that would make them choose Python over Ruby.

All this harsh buzz over Python might make you wonder why I would be foolish enough to decide to choose Python rather than Ruby at my new gig. The answer is that there is a specific library, nltk, I needed to use.

The natural language toolkit does cool stuff like this:

text = 'Mary had a little lamb. Its fleece was white as snow.'
sentences = nltk.sent_tokenize(text)
>>> ['Mary had a little lamb.', 'Its fleece was white as snow.']

which is harder than it looks. Once you have your sentences, you can find the words and, teleporting back to 6th grade language arts (assuming you grew up in America) or first year Latin (if you didn’t) you can analyse the parts of speech with:

words = [nltk.word_tokenize(sentence) for sentence in sentences]
>>> [
  ['Mary', 'had', 'a', 'little', 'lamb', '.'],
  ['Its', 'fleece', 'was', 'white', 'as', 'snow', '.']
]
parts_of_speech = nltk.pos_tag(words[0])
>>> [('Mary', 'NNP'), ('had', 'VBD'),
    ('a', 'DT'), ('little', 'RB'), ('lamb', 'NN'), ('.', '.')]

Hmmm. I think Mr Hickey would’ve gone with adjective rather than adverb for ‘little’ there. So would I. Anyhoo…

Once you have your parts of speech, you can diagram the sentence automatically (ssshhhh. Don’t tell your middle school kids):

That’s gotta be handy for something, right?

Now that we are stuck with Python, we get to wrestle with Django which is like Rails but brought to you by the same people that thought def __init__(self): was a good idea. I’m sure it’ll be great when it catches up with the state of the art but, Dudes! A separate language for templating!? I’m already learning a new language? You’re gonna make me learn another one for generating HTML? Didn’t you learn anything from JSP?

I think the folks who decided that separate languages for templates are descended from the folks who thought separate drinking fountains were a good idea. Is it really easier for designer folks to type

<ul>
{% for slimmer in slimmers %}
    <li>{{ slimmer.name|lower }}</li>
{% endfor %}
</ul>

than

<ul>
{% for slimmer in slimmers %}
    <li>{{ slimmer.name.lower() }}</li>
{% endfor %}
</ul>

Suddenly that significant whitespace business doesn’t seem so clever, does it? But, seriously, separate is rarely equal when it comes to template languages and the soft bigotry of low expectations hurts those it aims to help.

Template languages are the one area where the microsofties are ahead of the game with their Razor template syntax. It reduces the number of angle brackets and other unwanted syntax by 83%. Guaranteed!

<ul>
@foreach (var slimmer in slimmers)
{
   <li>@slimmer.name.ToLower();</li>
}
</ul>

How, you might wonder, if you know all these languages, are you supposed to keep all the various syntaxes straight? The plain answer is… I don’t. I immediately forget everything I knew about the previous language about two weeks after I stopped using it. That makes for embarrassing interviews when they ask me a Java question and, despite having 12 years of Java on my resume, I can’t remember how to construct and initialize a List, or is that a Vector? Or an ArrayList? One of them, anyway.

Fortunately for the forgetful among us, there is JetBrains. Even more fortunately, they have just released a brilliant Python IDE, PyCharm, to go along with the also brilliant, RubyMine and IntelliJ. They also have the brilliant Resharper for the microsofties but you have to use it inside the not-quite-so-brilliant Visual Studio and they don’t get along entirely well together. They both enjoy a lot of memory consumption for a start.

PyCharm amazes me a little bit every day despite my 10 years of being amazed by JetBrains. The type inference system is, frankly, spooky. PyCharm knows the type of a variable that I merely whispered to a colleague the day before and knows all its methods and parameters, what it likes to have for lunch and its taste in science fiction. It handles renaming and more sophisticated refactorings even better than Resharper and it doesn’t even have .NET’s type system to help it along.

So. Python.

To summarize:

  • It’s not quite Ruby.
  • It’s jolly excellent at text mining.
  • It’s a lot nicer than C# (except in html templates) or Java.
  • PyCharm. Oh yeah.

I’m happy with our choice so far but ask me again when I get good enough to stop needing to refer to my cheat sheet every ten minutes. I might have a more informed opinion.

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

What day is it?

I love the show RadioLab (from W-Y-N …Ceeeeeee!).

It’s an hour-long show but I never get to listen to it because I can rarely find an uninterrupted hour to put aside to sit through a whole podcast. Sometimes, I’ll catch a bit on the actual radio in the car but I always regret it because I’ll catch it in the middle and I’ll make it home before the end of the show. It almost makes me wish I had an hour-long commute so I could hear a whole show.

Recently, I have been trying to listen to the show in bed and I try to get an hour in before I sleep. I rarely make it through the first guest before I drift off and I wake to find my wife pulling out my earphones and half the show is over. I have listened to half of many, many radiolabs and, often, the same half of a radiolab over and over as I tried to catch up on the one I slept through yesterday which, of course, makes me even more sleepy because it’s boring to hear the same stuff over and over and you don’t always realize you’ve heard it already until you’ve heard it again. With me so far?

Anyhoo.

Today, I have friends coming over to play silly games involving sheep and barrels of indigo. For one reason or another, I haven’t slept for a couple of nights so I thought I’d get in an hour’s nap so I can better monopolize the tobacco and the mating room. What better way to guarantee that I would sleep than by listening to a RadioLab show?

Trouble was, the show was incredibly interesting [isn’t it always? – ed] and about 10 minutes in I was trying desperately to stay awake so I could hear it.

The second segment was about a woman who temporarily lost her memory (something something locally something amnesia – I forget what exactly) and her daughter took her to the hospital thinking she’d had a stroke [been there -ed]. One of the fascinating symptoms was that the woman couldn’t form new memories and would ask the same questions over and over.

What day is it?

How long have I been here?

Why am I here?

What’s wrong with me?

And, over and over, her daughter would patiently answer the same questions. Eventually, she noticed that the conversation wasn’t just repeating a similar pattern; it was repeating EXACTLY THE SAME PATTERN with a frequency of exactly 90 seconds.

They have a recording of the whole thing and they were able to overlay one round of conversation exactly onto the next and see that they were exactly identical with identical pauses and identical expressions of surprise from the mother. Eventually, a little variation crept in such as, the daughter observing to her mother that, not only have we had this conversation already 183 times already today, we are about to have it again in 5…4…3…

Sadly, this was all eerily familiar to me too. I don’t remember that the repetition was quite so regular but I too took someone very dear to the hospital with temporary amnesia.

In the beginning, she knew that she was forgetting and worked hard, like the guy in Memento, to keep everything straight and apologized in advance for the fact that her memory was bad and that she was sure to forget things.

Our patterns of conversation were eerily similar to the lady in radiolab.

Can you explain to me why I am in hospital? Why are my parents here from Malta? It must be serious, right?

I patiently explained one hundred – no, one thousand – times that she had a tumour that was pressing on the part of her brain where memories get made and that they couldn’t remove the tumour because the operation was too dangerous. Each time I explained her situation, her heart broke a little more but each time she amazed me with her bravery and stoic acceptance and determination that if there was a way to get through, she would find it.

One day though, she refused to believe my explanation and started to argue. Dick that I was, I argued back.

I am NOT losing my memory! My memory is fine.

I’m sorry but it’s true. In a few minutes, you’ll have forgotten all about this conversation and you’ll ask me again.

I will not!

You will…

Will what?

Forget this conversation…

What conversation?

Oh…never mind….

I felt like such a shit for arguing and redoubled my patience the next time around.

The lady in the RadioLab story made a full recovery and was able to laugh at a terrible and frightening part of her life. My story did not have such a happy ending and it pops back into my memory sometimes in those twilight moments between waking and sleeping. I hope I never forget.

Google Makes Little Girls Cry

#occupygooglereader is a cry of from the heart of Reader readers everywhere who quietly enjoyed the trickle of articles shared by friends real and virtual on Google’s wonderful RSS Reader.

It was a a small feature and I bet no more than one in a hundred used it. I liked to tap the little share with note button at the bottom of articles that moved me in some small way. I had no idea whether anyone ever saw my notes but it felt good to write them. My notes were messages in bottles bobbing insignificantly in an ocean of comment but were terribly meaningful to the lonely guy who scrawled them and tossed the bottle into the retreating tide.


It was obvious the Google would do away with the share feature on Reader as soon as Google+ appeared on the horizon. I looked forward to it even. Bottles tossed in the ocean are romantic and all but how much efficient for the guy on the island to get a modern communications pipeline with hangouts and +1s and circles?


Long before circles were the preferred shape for social exchange, I had a little debating circle going with a small number of close friends. We covered many of the trending topics of the day – Invade Iraq? 3-1 against! Impeach Clinton? 3-1 against! – and we covered all the greatest topics in the history of thought. We covered philosophy, science, theology, economics, politics everything – intelligent design? 3-1 against! The Basis of a Sound Society? Ah! Sadly, we never resolved that one.

Come to think of it, we were often 3-1 against. The 1 once requested reinforcement from an old college buddy but we turned him down (3-1 against!). In the end, real Social Networking (capital S capital N) killed our little circle and after 6 or 7 years of passionate remonstrations, our clamour faded to silence.

Through an accident of history, my official social networks coalesced into very distinct circles. Twitter is all about software craftsmanship; Facebook is for long lost nieces, schoolmates and pirates; Linked In for former colleagues. I haven’t really figured out what Google Plus is for yet but I have a secret wish that it’s for serious debate. I even created a circle for it but my Debating Circle is so far unsullied by any actual debate.

Google+’s circles seem perfect for debates. If you debate on Twitter, who knows which frothing wingnut or moonbat will join in and no one wants to discuss moral philosophy with their crazy uncle on Facebook. I tried it once with the frothing wingnut sister-in-law of a friend of a wife in South Dakota (the sister-in-law, not the wife) but in the end the wingut’s head threatened to explode with anger and the friend shut down all the fun for fear of losing her inheritance.

It’s funny to watch debates on Facebook as it’s probably the only place in the world where wingnuts actually hang out with moon bats on a regular basis. The debates get quite surreal quite quickly. With just one Extropian or Randian on your friends list [and don’t we all have at least one of those? -ed] and the discussion will go asymptotic before it even gets started. Facebook is the new polite society where you can’t discuss sex, politics or religion and anyone who does is instantly flagged as moral leper to be shunned by the righteous and the clean. Google+, with its tidy little boundaries seems like the perfect breeding ground for a self organized leper colony and I live in hope that, one day, the disease will take hold.

I expect that much of the outrage among fans of the share with note button on Reader comes from the sense of loss of a safe place to talk passionately about important topics free from self-censorship for fear of offending someone. If we are all reading Conor Friedersdorf, there is a good chance that we have sympathy for his arguments or at least care enough to disagree passionately without causing or taking offense.

I let loose freely on my blog but, even here, there’s always a nagging doubt that someone will take umbrage at an overlooked subtlety or you’ll cause outrage in an over-sensitive boss or sister-in-law when they find out that you are a secret pirate [present bosses and sisters-in-law excepted of course! -ed].

It’s not just that Google deleted a safe venue for debate that causes the sense of loss that the#OccupyGoogleReader people are feeling. It’s the fact that Google has snuffed out countless little debating circles that have grown organically over the years. They can reform their networks on Google+ but they won’t be the same. Even switching from one Google+ account to another, I will probably lose about half of my network. My new network will be more refined of course, without the tyre-kickers and the people that added me to their circles before they got bored with clicking the you might know these people button but I still resent Google a little bit more today than I did yesterday.

But I don’t resent Google nearly as much as the next group of aggrieved netizens that I’ll mention here.

Imagine yourself as an eleven year old girl.

You’ve been flirting with and over GMail and Buzz for a couple of years now. You have just started middle school and your real life social network just got much bigger and more exciting. Girls in middle school represent the very pinnacle of human social interaction and you are a child of the cyber age so it’s natural that your virtual life would reflect the one you live in meat-space. Your killjoy parents think you are not ready for Facebook so gmail and Buzz are the only social games in town.

One day you come home from school for a fresh round of flirting and middle school bitchery on the interwebs and you notice – quelle horreur! – that Buzz is gone!!! OMG!!1! :(((((((((((( What’s a modern little girl to do??!

But wait! What silver lining is this? Google wants me to join Google Plus!!! There’s a banner right there that says so!! Oh happy day!! :-))))))

My dad has told me a 100 times that I shouldn’t enter personal information on the interwebs. He even has a fake birthday for that very purpose [29 feb on a leap year. It’s surprising how many sites that breaks! Even my own employer’s! – ed]. But this is Google. They have a very important looking notice that says I mustn’t lie or bad things will happen. What can it hurt to break my daddy’s rules just this one time and type my real date of birth just once…..?

This is what happens.

You get a scary notice that Google has taken away all of your friends. All of your fun; all of your LIFE. All gone. If you were an eleven year old girl and Google just shut down your social life, what’s the first thing that you would do?

You would cry.

Can you imagine what it’s like for a girl just starting middle school to lose her online presence? Ever had your WoW account hacked and lost everything? Ever lent your gameboy to a cute little mexican girl at a football game and have her delete 6 months worth of your pokemon adventure? What if your Flickr account got deleted? I was eleven-years once. I would’ve been devastated and I wasn’t even an eleven-year old girl.

Google is in a tough spot. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) doesn’t allow web sites to collect data from kids under 13 but, as surely everyone except the congress-critters who passed the law knows, the law is a nonsense.

In fact CR found that over 5 million of Facebook’s 7.5 million-plus underage were as young as “10 and under.” … That’s not the worst of it. CR also found that underage kids using Facebook were unsupervised by parents. The site claims ‘not wrongly’ that this exposes them to “malware or serious threats such as predators or bullies.”

Time

Telling middle school kids that they can’t interact with their friends online is like telling the tide not to come in. King Canute himself would have known better.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Some people wanted that law.

“We urge Facebook to strengthen its efforts to identify and terminate the accounts of users under 13 years of age, and also to implement more effective age-verification methods for users signing up for new accounts,” Ioana Rusu, the regulatory counsel for Consumers Union, wrote in a letter to Zuckerberg.

We need a modern Canute to demonstrate the futility of ineffective laws. They are worse than futile. They teach kids that the law is to be laughed at. Everyone else already knows.

Google could have done better though.

Their message doesn’t say

We are sorry but those nasty democrats in Washington made us forbid you from using Google+… but carry on using Gmail which you and 99% of your eleven-your old friends have been using for years to communicate with each other and with your teachers and soccer coach and piano instructors.

It doesn’t say

We are taking away GMail and Google Docs but we’ll give you half an hour to download your contact lists and your homework projects so you don’t have to cry some more on Monday morning when you explain to your teacher that Google ate your homework.

Wait! What? You didn’t read the terms and conditions? What are you? Eleven-years old?

Nope.

It says

You do not meet the age requirements for a Google Account. This account will be deleted in 28 days unless the birthday you entered was incorrect and you submit proof that you are 13 years old or older.

Forget the sugar and spice. Little girls these days are 90% social networking and 10% pictures of ponies. Google just cut out a big chunk of their hearts.

Google, like most technology companies, probably has little designer teams with persona profiles pinned to the wall. Personas, for the uninitiated, are representative archetypes of a user population.

They have names like Chuck and Beryl…

Chuck works at the hardware store and lost the use of both his thumbs in a bandsaw accident so he needs the channel selector to respond to a whack with his fist.

Beryl is forty two year old secretary who thinks an email is not a proper email unless you attach an Excel spreadsheet…

Personas are a great way to get inside the heads of your users and imagine how they see your products. Full-ceremony personas come with a life history and a profile photo and a list of their favourite charcuterie. Design teams have earnest conversations about how Jennifer will only click buttons with rounded corners because they remind her of that Laura Ashley dress she wore to Aunt Mathilda’s wedding.

Google needs a new persona. The profile picture will be of a little girl crying big, cheek-sopping tears because Google took away all her friends.

Chelsea used to be a fun-loving cherub but, these days, she just cries. Chelsea loves playing with dolls and talking with her friends about ponies. She doesn’t use gmail any more though because we took it away and made her cry.

They’ll update the persona over time. In 20 years, it will a picture of a bitter, thirty-something woman who still refuses to use Google+ because of that one time that Google took away all her friends. The marketing people will come up with some cheesy category for them like

generation lost – the generation who carry iPhones and use Bing and Facebook and drive Oracle self-driving cars because they still refuse to use Google products because they still remember that one time, 50 years ago, when Google ripped out a piece of their soul.

Maybe they could work it into one of those cute logos? The second ‘o’ could be a sobbing little girl in pigtails, the ‘e’ could be a teardrop and the descender of the ‘g’ could represent the happiness draining away from every little girl’s life.

In all fairness, I should note that Google did provide one way for our sad little girl to escape from social purgatory. If she can persuade her parents to lie about her age – and type in a credit card number for authentication – she can come back into the Google fold.

I swear the button to commit this sin was an eye, winking.