Friday, September 28, 2007

Well That Explains It

Walking at SFU the other day, I passed two professorial types deep in conversation. One was saying to the other, "You mean to say, 60% of the lawyers in the world are in the U.S.?"

I did not overhear the answer, nor have I checked this factoid independently, but if true it would explain a lot.

Picture of fish for sale in Chinatown, above, by Winnifred.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Unintentional Art Installation

Guess we overloaded the sheet-fed scanner.

You see, students with visual impairments are entitled to an "accessible PDF" of their textbooks. This allows those with some vision to blow them up huge on a computer screen, as well as to have the computer read it to them out loud. This is actually one of the few legal uses of reformatting of in-copyright works that we are allowed under Canadian law. The problem is, with technical or scientific textbooks, such as this precalculus tome, which has a lot of symbols and formulae, the OCR software doesn't know how to interpret them. Adding to the problem is the use of coloured ink to separate parts of the equation from others. This is probably a great teaching strategy for fully-sighted students, but really bites when you've got a visually impaired student struggling to read the symbols in the first place. Textbook publishers: could you put a sock in the coloured ink thing?

Anyway, we were trying today to figure out some alternative scanning practices that might make the formulae machine-readable. The textbook had already been sliced to allow us to sheet-feed it through the scanner; later it gets rebound in spiral for the student as a back-up to the electronic version. But the student's got a test in a few weeks so we really had to get this to her soon. We stuck the whole thing in the sheet feeder and set it up to capture high-res, high-contrast colour scans. An hour later when I emerged from my office, I saw what you're seeing above in the scanner's out-tray. I guess when the tray gets full the rest of the sheets bump into each other, creating the cornucopia effect. It was so beautiful I left it there to enjoy. Tomorrow some poor student employee is going to get stuck re-ordering those pages.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Meteorological Dissonance

Thursday I had my first real taste of the Burnaby Mountain weather syndrome. You're going along thinking you know what the weather is, then you get exactly half way up the mountain and you're inside a cloud. It was very wet and clammy at the top of the hill.

Unfortunately, Thursday was also the annual Terry Fox Run (although most people walked). This is a very worthy event raising money for cancer. Terry Fox came from nearby Port Coquitlam and attended SFU. I stepped out of the library to run an errand on the other end of campus, and found a hundred adorable children singing to about 1,000 people who were signed up to run. You couldn't actually hear the kids over the canned music pouring from the sound system, but they sure were cute. I'm guessing they came from Terry Fox's old elementary school.

It turns out that rain is the B.C. analog for "mad dogs and Englishmen." British Columbians go running in the pouring rain, yes, carrying umbrellas when necessary.

They were urged on their way by a bagpiper, an SFU tradition. There he is by the statue of Terry Fox. SFU has had the world champion bagpipe team for as long as anyone can remember.

The statue of Terry Fox isn't the only art on campus. A short distance away I came across this enormous avocado, which put me in mind of the Geostationary Banana Over Texas, which, sadly, appears to have been stalled for about a year.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Power Substation

Sorry I've been missing in action this week. Things are catching up with me. Have had many adventures commuting between
the two universities at opposite ends of the universe; and other adventures involving involving the fact that neither of the aforementioned institutions of higher learning feel much urgency when it comes to paying people they've employed. Today I got word that SFU will almost surely pay me this week, but as for UBC, "after the September rush is over" is all they're willing to commit to. Guess September came as something of a surprise to them. It's not as if it happens every year. Doesn't matter, the students are great, and the UBC paycheque is going to be pathetic anyway.

I did start meeting my student employees this week; one of them is going to teach me how to read Chinese characters for the numbers up to ten, to facilitate the Chinese newspaper scanning project, in which page numbers loom large. She also promised to teach me a few phrases so I can say please and thank you in the Chinatown stores. The Chinese newspapers are especially fascinating because I live in Chinatown. The ads usually give the store name and address in English, and it's amazing how many of them are still around: Ming Wo, Dollar Meats, and Hon's, but when it was still on Main Street.

And when it was on Main Street, which is where it was thirty years ago when my mom used to take me there on nights she couldn't face cooking, it was about a block away and across the street from the Main Street Power Substation, above. Shabby, but still impressive. Picture by Winnifred, of course.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Morning Smoke

My new commute to work takes me by this backpacker's hostel. This morning I glanced over and saw there was a guy on the top floor sitting on the window ledge with his feet dangling out. My first thought was of a jumper. Our current neighbourhood is the only place I actually saw someone standing on a window ledge contemplating jumping. That was years ago, when I thought I could never live down here. I guess seven years in Brooklyn reset my tolerance level to social chaos. Anyway, I realized a second later that this guy wasn't a jumper. Jumpers don't sit, for one thing. Also, he looked quite comfortable, and was taking in the morning scene as we all rushed to the SkyTrain* station a block away. Then I got it. He was having his morning smoke. Smoking in most indoor places (other than private homes) is illegal in the city of Vancouver. He managed to go "outside" for his first smoke by situating his body almost completely out of the building, and his cigarette entirely so. I found myself perversely delighted that the backpacker's hostel--which seems to provide short-term housing for a variety of near-homeless folks--was the kind of place where people uphold the bylaws of the City of Vancouver. So civilized.

*New Yorkers: the SkyTrain is what they call the subway here. I imagine that's in light of the fact that it's 90% above ground.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Make the New Yorkers Jealous

This is the view from the staff room at the SFU Library. I'm just saying.

Monday, September 10, 2007

An Honest Day's Labour

I started two new jobs within the last week, neither involving unearthing rocks from gardens in Langley. Yes, that's a rock, not a shovelful of dirt. Win and I offered to help Winnifred's step-mother plant her cedars, because they were getting root-bound in their pots. She had already called three handy-guys there in Langley, "no job too big or too small", but this job must have been too in-between because they all ended up begging off. Thus a rare shot of me doing some real work.

But back to my actual gainful employment. Thursday I began teaching "Public Libraries" at UBC. So it turned out I like teaching, and I'm totally enthralled by the students. Check out our class blog, to which they are posting news stories of interest to public librarians.

UBC itself, unfortunately, is sort of a French farce. Nobody seems to be able to figure out why I can't get a campus-wide login, without which you really can't do much of anything including use a computer, but I've decided to simply barrel along as if it's all going to work out. Below, my favourite sign at UBC, in the bathroom of the upscale cafe (used to be the Faculty Club, now democratically open to everyone, but of course students can't afford it. We managed to be invited to a reception there after Renata's husband's talk last week. Thanks for the invitation, Renata!)

Then today, I started my other new job. Working in digital initiatives at SFU, and boy are there a lot of new things to remember. They do theses, newspapers, audio cassettes, on-the-fly public requests, and this interesting thing where they convert textbooks to accessible PDFs so visually-impaired students can get the computer to read them out loud. All very cool. Don't have too much staff yet as they're students and get hired fresh every semester. Found myself (in t-shirt, linen slacks and loafers) hopelessly overdressed. Note to self: buy jeans this weekend.

Friday, September 7, 2007


It's incredible to me to contemplate that Vancouver's public librarians and library workers are still on strike. It's a sign of how really fucked this city is going to be by the 2010 Olympics that our mayor and council would rather have the city without its services (garbage pickup, parks maintenance, community centres, as well as libraries) than give his workers the same terms of employment that every other Lower Mainland municipality has found acceptable and affordable. The employer hasn't responded to the union's last offer, made 22 days ago.

Pickets continue upbeat and inventive--below, they are forming the words "let's talk" on the north plaza of Library Square, with photographers on the 14th floor of the office tower shooting them from above--and they are getting lots of honks and support from the public. But it's got to be demoralizing. One picketer told me he's expecting to be out until Thanksgiving (in Canada, that's early October, New York readers). Every pay period of strike pays for one year of the union's demands. Five year contract/ten week strike = cancel each other out.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Meet Hermione (Yiddish name Henye)

I left my desktop computer with a friend in New York and have been borrowing Winnifred's second best computer for the nonce, but the reality is, I don't like Macs. I know, God will strike me dead, but I just had to say it. In spite of everything about the Evil Empire and its hideous buggy programs that they release with major security flaws and then later say, oh, just download the patch, then the patch makes half your other programs stop working, and that's assuming you haven't gotten a virus in the meantime... um, where was I? Right, no big fan of MicroSoft or anything, I just find PCs easier to use. I mean, how do they get by with only one mouse button? And I really don't need the computer to be so simple to use that I have no control over it. I'd rather have it complicated and flexible. Long story short: yesterday we went out, plunked down the old credit card and bought me this lovely Toshiba. Isn't she beautiful? Winnifred chose her English name, from which I deduced her Yiddish name.

We did take care of the major issues first (installing software, including various patches to the brand new operating system), which is to say, I made a list of what I wanted and Winnifred did it, but by late last night we were ready to try the built-in webcam. Here we are trying it.

I didn't realize that the touchpad was so sensitive, so I kept taking pictures by mistake when my hand hovered over the left-click for an instant. We kept getting these reaction shots to the pictures, then reactions to the reactions, and so on.

Finally, gasping for breath, I lifted my hands off the keyboard, which is the only reason this madness ever came to an end.

Tomorrow: videos.