Go East, Old Man

It will be interesting to see how this has changed since 2005

Well, I’m not quite old, yet, I hope, but I am going East, for about a week. Here’s the the plan: My family is having a reunion in Orlando, Florida next weekend, celebrating my Aunt’s Birthday (suffice to say It’s a big one). In the week leading up to that date, I’m going to visit some parts of the eastern US that I haven’t seen since we left in 2005 (a year and 10 days ago, to be precise). First stop is Dublin, New Hampshire, to visit The Walden School Summer session. I’ll write more about this amazing institution in my next entry. I’ll be visiting and hopefully soaking in the creative juices there from Tuesday through Wednesday. On Thursday I’ll be in Boston, visiting our old neighborhood in Cambridge and looking up some some old friends. I have to admit that while I consider Vancouver my home, we did live for 14 years in Cambridge, and since we’ve left, every once in a while I’ll do a little digital sleepwalk using Google Maps Street View to our old courtyard and the other streets in the neighborhood. I know every crack in the sidewalk between Hampshire Street and the Kendall Square T stop, or used to know, rather. I expect that I’ll be surprised at how things have changed. I don’t know if I’ll get a chance to taste some Toscanini’s Ice Cream, or even an Emma’s Pizza or Kendall Brewery beer, but any and all of those will be nice to sample once again, just to make sure that they are all as good as I remember them. I’ll also have no chance to hear the BSO, or go to any concert, for that matter. Perhaps a ‘cultural’ reunion is something I’ll have to plan for another time. In the meantime, 3 whirlwind days in New England bookended by flights all around North America will be how my week goes. Let’s hope the heat wave has broken before I get there.

Early Friday morning I fly out of Logan (which I must admit I’m not looking forward to seeing again – I hate that airport — often called the worst in North America — with a passion and hope that someday they will mercifully tear it down, but I’m not holding my breath ) to Orlando, where Pam and I will join my parents, cousins and others in the Florida heat (although I suspect we’ll be in air-conditioning much of the time).

The Countdown Begins

It’s December, and that means 2 things: 1) a busy social calendar and 2) the countdown until the Winter Solstice. First, about the parties and other celebrations, we actually started the season in late November at the Narvey’s who held a holiday party plus viewing of the Canucks game (we lost, but Pam won the pool!). This past weekend we had a nice time with Matt and Oana, who this year decided to celebrate both Krampus and Saint Nicholas Day, since Oana’s sister Nicoletta has him as her Saint (I’m not precisely sure how that works, but I guess I’d get Saint David, the patron Saint of Wales, who has his day on March 1, right?) There was lots of great food, including the traditional stuffed cabbages, a Romanian specialty that Matt made along with cheeses, sausages and breads. I remember my grandmother, who was Russian, used to make the best cabbage rolls or  ‘Prachas‘, as I remember her calling them (also known as Gołąbki in Polish). Pam and I brought some veggies with spicy peanut dipping sauce (not exactly traditional, but probably a good foil to all the heavier, Eastern European fare). This coming Thursday is the reception and celebration of the Best of 604 Awards, a brand new event that reminds me that we have a ton of great bloggers deserving of recognition in this area. I’m thrilled that I actually know several of the nominees and hope they all win in their categories.

12 Days until we Start Moving Toward the Light Again

Every year, around this week or so, I’ve gotten in the habit of counting down to December 21st, the Winter Solstice or shortest day of the year. It’s a turning point, as if we’re all taking a stroll toward a darker and colder end of the solar system and sniffing the air, and then turning around and heading back (I know, it’s not exactly that, but it helps me visualize better what’s going on).

We haven’t stopped watching US news, a habit we picked up when we were feverishly glued to the run-up to the election. After that media extravaganza, it’s been the steady melt-down of the US economy that has held us with morbid fascination.  Of course, there have been some reports of economic trouble here, such as the news this morning that the Bank of Canada had dropped it’s key lending interest rate by .75 basis points to 1.5%, which is reportedly the lowest this benchmark has been in a half a century. Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to be quite the tone of panic, fear and dread that we see and hear from the south of us.

So although it’s pretty gloomy outside (heavy rain, wind and temperatures that are slowly falling toward the freezing mark), we know that there will be that turning point, and we know exactly when it starts, at least in terms of the number of hours of possible sunlight. On December 22, the day will be a minute or so longer, and we are journeying back to Spring, and eventually Summer. My ace in the hole is that I know that as early as February (February! My yearly nemesis!), there will likely be some cherry blossoms here.  All we have to do is hang on another 20 days or so and we start to see signs of Spring!

Will the Inauguration of President Elect Obama a month later be the turning point? Wasn’t that was his Election Speech was about ? (‘This was the moment’) Or didn’t I hear that phrase somewhere much earlier in his campaign?

I guess we can wait for the turnaround, but the prospect of hunkering down for one or two years is not very appealing. Life is short, and the inexorable pace of movement on this scale makes plotting a turning point something that can only be done years later, when some historian or economist, poring over the numbers and trends points to a date and says ‘Aha! That was when things began to turn around.’ For us living through it, the economic solstice isn’t something that we can count down to.

A Casualty of Economic Winter

Out of Town News in Cambridge

Out of Town News in Cambridge

There are also permanent losses; some companies and institutions that won’t live through this economic Winter to see Spring. Recently I learned that Out of Town News, the spiritual and architectural centre of Harvard Square (it even had the address of Zero Harvard Square), will be closing forever on January 31 of next year. While I know that the days of newspapers and newsstands are numbered, I’m sure that the downturn in the economy hastened the end of this institution, which along with the Wordsworth bookstore (already gone for years – it closed even before we left), was something that I’ll always see in my mind’s eye when I think of Cambridge. I have to admit that I only stopped in there a a half-dozen of times in the decade and a half I lived in Cambridge and the prices were nearly as outrageous for magazines and newspapers as they are at Mayfair News near us now on Broadway (It’s probably not their fault; magazines in Canada are crazy expensive!). Perhaps Out of Town News was on the wane long before we even took notice.

Besides the cherry blossoms, I’m looking forward to the finish of some new additions (a new Whole Foods on Broadway! Woo hoo!), and even a new streetcar line from Granville Island to Science world, along with tons of other new construction for this city in this spring, and in the coming year in preparation for the 2010 Olympics. In the meantime, time to head down to (hunker down in?) our windowless but warm gym in the basement to listen to podcasts and pedal on the stationary bike, thinking of those new places I’ll actually be cycling to in a few months.

Political Youth

It’s no secret that the youth of America have embraced Obama as their candidate, and I’m thrilled, but also a little surprised, that for the first time in my life, there is the distinct prospect of the US President actually being younger than I am (although by less than a year – 10 months and 22 days, to be exact).  Barack Obama is at this moment, flying to see his ailing Grandmother in Hawaii. Mine is long gone. His age is on my mind, because I can relate to him as a member of my age group, Generation JonesNot a boomer, much as they would like to lump us in with them (and I always think of Clinton and yes, Dubya as quintessential boomers, representing much that was both good and bad about that generation), and not a Gen-Xer, Generation Jones doesn’t get as much press, but it I’m beginning to ponder what it will be like with one of us actually in charge. To quote Wikipedia’s definition:

Generation Jones is a term that describes people in certain English-speaking countries born between the years 1954 and 1965. American social commentator Jonathan Pontell identified this generation and coined the term to name it. Generation Jones has been referred to as a heretofore lost generation between the Baby boomers and Generation X, since prior to the popularization of Pontell’s theory, its members were included with either the Boomers or Xers. The name connotes a large, anonymous generation, and derives from the slang term “jonesing”, referring to the unrequited cravings felt by this generation of unfulfilled expectations.

From Then to Now

Another age-related topic was on my mind: When I volunteered to work on the Dean campaign in Massachusetts, we used to have many people who were younger than us over to work on the Mass-for-Dean web site. Chris, Emily and James’s laptops would be out at the kitchen table sucking down bits on the still fairly new wi fi network. We worked on the web site, on handouts, signs, coordination of resources and meetings, and a bunch of other activities.  I still keep in touch with a few members of the group that Pam affectionately referred to as ‘The kids’. So it’s with a little pride that I view the Dean ’50-state strategy’, the stunningly effective use of the Internet as a fund-raising tool, and the signing up of all of those new voters as perhaps having ‘fetal’ beginnings in our townhouse in Cambridge. Nevertheless, I don’t think any of us had any idea of how sophisticated the online component of the campaign would become.

There is also so much vitality and creativity of those who are now involved in the Obama campaign, which I can plainly see, even from a distance. Even though I’m not a fan of the music, this online ‘grass-roots’ web ad struck me as so polished, so ‘professional’, and so emotionally appealing that I felt that I had to embed it here. Some of the newest generation of voters in the US (and who are, of course, even younger than the kids who crowded around the kitchen table 22 Lilac Court) have made a very impressive get-out-the-youth-vote video:

Celebrating the Smoot

According to Google’s built-in calculator functions, I’m 1.04477612 smoots tall. And what, you may be asking, is a smoot?

From Wikipedia:

The smoot is a nonstandard unit of length created as part of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) fraternity prank. It is named after Oliver R. Smoot (class of 1962), an MIT fraternity pledge to Lambda Chi Alpha, who in October 1958 was used by his fraternity brothers to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge between Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

One smoot is equal to his height (five feet and seven inches ~1.70 m), and the bridge’s length was measured to be 364.4 smoots (620.1 m) plus or minus one ear, with the “plus or minus” intended to express uncertainty of measurement. Over the years the “or minus” portion has gone astray in many citations, including the commemorative plaque at the site itself. Smoot repeatedly lay down on the bridge, let his companions mark his new position in chalk or paint, and then got up again. Eventually, he tired from all this exercise and was thereafter carried by the fraternity brothers to each new position. Everyone walking across the bridge today sees painted markings indicating how many smoots there are from where the sidewalk begins on the Boston river bank. The marks are repainted each year by the incoming associate member class (similar to pledge class) of Lambda Chi Alpha

This past weekend, smoots and Oliver Smoot were back in the news:

Father of the ‘Smoot’ returns to MIT

By Associated Press | Saturday, October 4, 2008 | http://www.bostonherald.com | Local Coverage

CAMBRIDGE – The father of a unique measurement known as the “Smoot” has returned to MIT.

Oliver Smoot was the shortest pledge in the school’s Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity 50 years ago when they decided to lay him on the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge.
They found he measured 5-foot-7 inches, then marked the bridge every five feet and seven inches, determining it was 364.4 “Smoots” long. Today, Google’s calculator function will change any measurement into Smoots.

The original Smoot — who later became chairman of the American National Standards Institute — returned to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Saturday for “Smoot Celebration Day.” Smoot spoke and was presented with a plaque, which will be installed on the bridge.

MIT president Susan Hockfield said the plaque will brighten the day for windblown pedestrians.

I love the fact that Smoot became chairman of the American National Standards Institute. Who better to preside over such an organization than someone who is a Standard of Measure himself!

On the half a dozen or so times that I walked on the Mass Ave. bridge, I surveyed the Smoot marks like the one in the picture above, and was intrigued by the effect of a half a century of repainting (the repainting wasn’t always in the same colour!) I heard stories about the Boston police describing the location of disabled vehicles on the bridge being ‘near the 200-smoot mark’ or  ‘at the 250th smoot’. In fact, given how useful the smoot marks were, I wonder if it might be a good idea to also mark Vancouver’s bridges of significant length (such as the Granville Bridge, here in Vancouver)  in smoots. I’ll bet it would help with traffic reports. We could even append some smoot information at the bottom (as a footnote) of those flags already on the bridges. While the Burrard Street Bridge is probably not long enough to warrant ‘smoot calibration’, the Cambie and Lions’ Gate bridges could certainly benefit from this measurement. Even if we got pressure from the folks in Boston that only the Mass Ave. bridge could have smoot marks (because they were a bona-fide tourist attraction), I’d counter that there is no such thing as a copyright or other rights on a unit of measurement.

Perhaps some day in the distant future, people will wonder why all bridges are measured in smoots, and probably assume that it had something to do with road construction or the elevation of bridges above water. After all, measurements often have strange histories. The original definition of the inch was the width of a man’s thumb. In the 14th century, King Edward II of England ruled that 1 inch was equal to 3 grains of barley placed lengthwise, end to end.

I Get To Attend an Opening…Again


Ah yes, I remember it well: The long lines in the Cambridgeside Galleria Mall, the T-Shirts for those nearer to the front of the line, the excitement as the doors finally opened… The Apple Store opening in Cambridge, Massachusetts was one of the first ones that Apple had. We were used to the fact that although we weren’t Cupertino (or even San Francisco), Cambridge was one of the East Coast centres for Apple’s presence. After all, in the early days of Macworld Expo (and I doubt if many people who own an Apple product know this at this point), there was a West Coast Macworld Expo in San Francisco in January and an East Coast Macworld Expo in Boston, usually during the hottest week in August. It wasn’t until that fateful day when Bill Gates’s 20-foot face appeared on the screen behind Steve Jobs during his keynote (and it was hissed by the crowd) that Steve made sure that there would be no more MacWorlds in Boston.

I know, I know, there were probably other reasons, but Jobs’s annoyance at the disagreement of the Boston crowd with his strategy of having Microsoft invest in Apple during their darkest hour probably didn’t help the show. In the following year, Jobs refused to give the keynote, and the show moved to New York City. It continued on a few years there at the Javitts Center, but attendance at that venue quickly petered out. As many have pointed out, the Internet can now disperse information about products far faster and farther than any show floor could. There is now only one MacWorld Expo, each January, and it remains a San Francisco tradition.

When we moved to Vancouver, I missed that sense of being on Apple’s radar. Despite the fact that many here use the Mac (in fact, in recent years it’s increased), I found the local Certified Apple Dealers a bit ramshackle, with relatively small variety of peripherals and messy, poorly maintained display areas. My first job was working for someone who hated the Mac, and he was relieved when I didn’t insist that I use one in his small office (I would have been the only Mac user in the shop). At IBM, we all were assigned Thinkpads, of course. The consultants from Victoria often had Macs. At Blogger and smaller business events, the Mac was predominant. Nevertheless, the absence of the iPhone in Canada, the higher prices for products, and constantly hearing the rumors that Apple Hated Canada didn’t help matters.

Our days of living in a relatively less important spot in the Apple universe are about to end. On this coming Saturday morning, I hope to be in line for the opening of the first Apple store in Vancouver. We’ve been waiting for this for some time. Its going to be in the heart of downtown, at the Pacific Centre Mall (actually the previous location of Holt Renfrew, a high end Department Store, who have moved into new digs nearby). I believe that it’s only the fifth store in Canada, with the other three in Toronto and one in Laval.

To put things in a bit of perspective, another Apple store opened in Boston (across the river from Cambridge, but certainly near our old home) last week. It’s the largest Apple Store in the world, taking up three floors and sporting an all glass facade, on Boylston Street. Oh well, I guess Boston still looms larger in Apple’s realm, but at least we’re no longer off the map.