Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

9/23/2005

Off the beaten path

File under: Home And Native Land, Talking To Strangers, What I Did On My Summer Vacation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:04 pm.

I never got around to writing about my tour of the Gulf Islands last June.

* * *

The public transit system that serves the Gulf Islands is unreliable when you’re in a hurry, but it’s friendly and it’s free. During my forays onto Salt Spring and Pender, I quickly marked myself as an outsider by looking askance as would-be commuters faced me, their thumbs extended. I recognized that this was how Islanders got by, but I was raised in a city, where strangers were not to be trusted.

The three picnickers on Cortes Island were different, however, and I slowed down when I saw them. The oldest of the them thanked me for stopping, and told me that she wasn’t coming along for the ride, but that Megan and Katie appreciated not having to walk to the community hall on such a hot day. No problem, I replied; I was happy to help. But I wasn’t from around here; where, I asked, was the community hall? The woman pointed to a junction on my map - not far at all - and thanked me again. She paused before turning around, and then said to the other two, strapped into seatbelts in the backseat - careful the traffic when you cross the street.

I introduced myself to my passengers. They were sisters, as I’d suspected. Megan was nine, and Katie was seven, and they were going to the community hall to rehearse for a play.

* * *

I never met the host of the inn on Mayne Island where I spent a rainy night. I’d called the innkeeper a few nights before to reserve a room, and she’d told me that she probably wouldn’t be around when I arrived. But she’d leave me a note and a key in the mailbox, and I should make myself at home as soon as I got in.

When I got off the ferry, I headed right for the inn, but I didn’t see a sign. I stopped at a bakery to ask for directions, and the baker asked me my name. “Oh, she told me she was expecting you,” he said when I answered. “Inn’s right next door, behind the tree. It’s hard to see the sign from the road.”

I thanked him, and found the key. The $60 room I’d booked was larger than my apartment. It had huge windows on two sides, and I selected a bed adjacent to one of them. I awoke early the next morning; my host was nowhere to be found. I put some money and a thank-you note in an envelope, stuck the envelope under the door, and left.

There was a note posted on the front door. It was dated two days earlier; I’d obviously missed it when I arrived. In the same formal script that had appeared on my note was a message: I will be out of town all week. If you would like a room at the inn, please see the baker next door.

* * *

Denman Island is the flattest of the Gulf Islands, and as such, it is also one of the most cyclist-friendly. There are bikes everywhere on the island - in the many parks, in front of the community school, in the middle of driveways. Unlocked, all of them.

“You can’t leave your bike unattended for a minute where I live,” I remarked to the owner of the bed and breakfast. “I lock mine even when I’m just running in and out of a store; otherwise, someone would take it for sure. It’s amazing that you can trust that no one would do that here.”

She shrugged. “People take bikes here, too,” she said.

“And you still leave them like that?” I said, gesturing toward the trendy mountain bike that was propped up against a tree.

“They take them, but we always end up finding them sooner or later,” she said. “I know what my neighbour’s bike looks like, and so does everyone else. Someone finds a purple hybrid near the Hornby ferry, they know it’s his.” And then, almost as an afterthought: “It’s an island. How far could they go?”

8/18/2005

Is there a bike expert in the house?

File under: Know Thyself, I Like To Ride My Bicycle, What I Did On My Summer Vacation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 2:47 pm.

Last time I asked, I received. Let’s see if this works twice…

The background: when I arrived back on the mainland last month, I decided that I was going to bike one thousand kilometers before the beginning of September. Biking here is a lot more pleasant than biking in Island Town: while the terrain is far from flat, it’s bikable, and there are enough clearly-marked bike routes that most drivers are not completely taken aback when they see someone commuting on two wheels.

Today, my odometer registered my one thousandth kilometer. In the past five weeks, I have travelled exclusively under my own power; this is the longest I’ve gone in years without setting foot in a car or bus. More amusingly, this is the longest I’ve gone in a year without setting foot on a boat - a stretch that will be broken soon, when I visit the last of the Gulf Islands.

Now that I am back in a bike-friendly city, I have become keenly aware that while my vehicle is an excellent car, it’s not such a great bike. It gets me up otherwise insurmountable hills, but it’s heavy, clunky, and awkward. So - I’m in the market for a new bike, a non-electric one.

Here’s what I am looking for:

  • I’d like to keep the cost of bike + gear under $500.
  • I live in a somewhat hilly city, so I’ll want a bike capable of handling hills.
  • I have bad knees; I’ve had a few flare-ups during which I could barely walk. Mild exercise keeps them in good shape, and biking is good for them; deep knee bends are bad for them. I’d like to get a bike for which my leg is extended completely when the pedal is at the bottom of the cycle; but setting the seat at such a position as to make that possible on most bikes I’ve ridden, doesn’t permit even my toes to rest on the ground when I stop. Do there exist bikes in which the pedals are not directly below the seat, but at an angle? Or pedals where the “up” and “down” positions are closer together than they are on most bikes?
  • In addition to having bad knees, I have a bad back. I’d like to be as close to upright as possible when biking; road bikes, therefore, are pretty much out.

Does anyone have any ideas?

8/15/2005

Adventures in Bureaucracy: An Appropriately Unwieldy Post

Or, How To (Hopefully) Get The Government Benefits You’re Entitled To In 100 Painful Steps.

First, a preamble, because reading this post will still be shorter than living it: When I was little, I was jealous of all of my friends whose parents had useful, easy-to-describe jobs, like doctor or teacher or dentist. One day in junior kindergarten, we had to draw pictures of what our mommies and daddies did at work, and our teachers then annotated the drawings as we dictated. I don’t remember what I drew for my dad (Mom, pregnant at the time, stayed at home with me) - I was four years old, so I assume that one picture of mine was more or less indistinguishable from the next - but the caption has been preserved in the family archives: “My daddy,” I explained, “plays on the computer and draws on the marker board.”

Umpteen years later, that’s still more or less the impression that I have of my father’s work, with one important modification: my daddy not only plays on the computer and draws on the marker board, he also meets with Important People in Employment Insurance. Which, at this point in my life, is a hell of a lot more useful than doctor or teacher or dentist. It means that my daddy, unlike yours, has inside dirt on the Employment Insurance department, such as “you fill everything out online but it’s all stored on paper”, “they don’t actually have a national system”, and “they tried to overhaul the system years ago, at a cost of six hundred million dollars, and it didn’t work. Now they’re trying to upgrade so they’re living somewhat less in the past.” Which, come to think of it, is not so useful, because anyone who’s ever dealt with EI could probably figure as much out themselves.

My mom, also not a doctor or a teacher or a lawyer, also has a job that has unexpectedly proven useful as of late. Mom’s job requires her to deal with disability and unemployment claims, and upon hearing that after two and a half months, I still hadn’t seen a dime, she knew exactly what I needed to do: “If you don’t get this one sorted out, call your MP,” she advised. “It’ll work. I don’t like to abuse that avenue, but it’s been long enough and you’ve tried everything else.”

I agreed to do it if it came to that, but I couldn’t imagine that being anything other than an exercise in frustration: I’d met said MP during the all-candidates debate last year, and he wowed me with his meticulously-honed ability to deflect every question directed at him by quoting irrelevancies from the Red Book. I figured a call to my MP would go something like this:

Me: Hi, I applied for EI eleven weeks ago. I haven’t seen any money yet, and my file has been frozen. Everyone I talk to tells me to talk to someone else, and as far as I can tell, there’s been no progress on my case.

The Honourable Mr. So-and-So: The Liberal Government is committed to streamlining the Employment Insurance application process. Under our initiative, the government has introduced computers to Employment Insurance offices across the country. By 2008, we will have invested $10,000,000 in hiring seven new staff who can program them to review your application instead of sending it into a black hole.

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. What it did come to was this:

Claiming Employment Insurance Benefits: A Saga In N Parts, For N Large

April, 2005 - contract at Island U expires. Island U efficiently sends a Record of Employment to my permanent address. Permanent address is parents’ home, as I have moved ten times in as many years.

May, 2005 - I fill out massive online Employment Insurance form, putting my parents’ address as my permanent address. Upon finishing, the EI website tells me to spend the next four weeks waiting for my claim to be processed.

June, 2005 - Computer dies. Meanwhile, back East, letter from EI arrives at parents’ house, directing me to fill out my first three reports online. I fill out the first, at the local library. EI website thanks me for the report. I try to fill out the second, and this time, the EI website isn’t so happy about that state of affairs, and orders me to call their 1-800 number.

Dutifully, I call the 1-800 number, and get passed along to four different EI workers until I get someone who knows what’s going on. This EI worker is a computer-savvy one, who knows that the online report-filing system traces IPs and figured out that I was filing my reports from BC, not from out East. Bad Moebius Stripper! No benefits for you! I object, saying that I’ve been looking for work in BC for months. Helpful EI worker helpfully tells me that she will transfer my file to BC, and that I will be notified four weeks later, when the file has been successfully transferred. After receiving this notification, I should present myself to the local (BC) EI office with proof that I have been actively seeking employment in this province. “In other words,” she paraphrases, “for now you just need to hurry up and wait.”

July, 2005 - I hurry up and wait, all the while continuing to be available for suitable employment. Nothing happens. At the end of the month, I figure that even accounting for our notoriously slow postal service, it’s been too long since I’ve heard from the EI folks, so I present myself at the local office and explain my entire story to the woman at the counter, to the consternation of the half-dozen people standing behind me in line. The woman at the counter nods sympathetically, and at the end of my five-minute spiel, she takes action: she picks up a sheet of paper from the desk, highlights a 1-800 number on it, and instructs me to phone it.

August, 2005 - I phone the 1-800 number, and tell my entire story again, intending to add the part about how I stopped at the office to talk to a human being and was directed to the hotline. The operator looks up my file, putting me on hold twice in the process. “Ah,” she says finally. “There’s been a disentitlement placed on your file.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You were listed as living out East, but our records indicated that you were actually in BC, and hence not seeking employment out East, so we’ve put a block on your file.”

“I had my file transferred,” I explain, AGAIN, “because I was never actually living out East. The reason I had my file transferred was because I have been actively seeking employment in BC all along, JUST LIKE I AM SUPPOSED TO.”

Without missing a beat, the operator says, “Well, then, in that case you’ll have to visit your local office in person, and explain that to them.”

“I did,” I reply. “They told me to phone this number.”

At which point, the stars align, or something like that, because GLORY BE, the operator says, “I’m going to put you on hold and contact a senior manager about this.”

Muzak plays. A few minutes later, the operator, invigorated, declares, “Here’s what I’m going to do. I am going to send a notice to your local office instructing them to remove the disentitlement. This will take up to two days. I will also tell them that you will be visiting them in person. Bring with you a list of job applications you’ve sent out, interviews, and so forth. They will then review that, and when they see that the disentitlement has been removed, they will be able reactivate your file.”

I thank her.

Three days later (two days to remove the block + margin of error) I arrive back at the local office, and present myself, along with my list-o-job-apps to the woman at the counter, who’s the same woman who had told me to call the 1-800 number a few days earlier. I give her the page. She takes my SIN number, and sends me on my way.

“When should I expect to see some money?” I ask.

“I can’t tell you that,” she chirps, and produces an info sheet from her desk. She highlights a 1-800 number. “You’ll have to call this number.”

“When?”

“You can call them now. There are phones by the back wall, with direct lines to the BC office.”

(Reread that part: There are phones in the local Employment Insurance office that connect you to the national Employment Insurance office. This is an institution that actively embraces its inefficiency.)

“They know stuff about my file that you don’t know, having just dealt with me in person?”

“Yes, they have that information. We just added an extra phone, for your convenience.”

I trot over to the convenient new phone, pick it up, request a human being, and tell my entire story AGAIN. The operator is confused. “I wouldn’t have that information. You’ll have to visit your local office -”

“Well, that’s convenient,” I reply. “I’m at my local office right now!”

Back to the counter, to the woman with the 1-800 fetish. “They sent me back here.”

“Okay,” she says, “I’ll put you in line to meet with someone. There’s a 20-minute wait.”

Fine.

Again the stars align, and exactly twenty minutes later I’m talking to this really patient man whom they surely hired by accident, because he’s so very good at his job that I am completely taken aback. For one, I don’t have to tell him my story, because he’s been spending the last ten minutes reading it. I ask him when I can expect to see some money.

“Well,” he says, “first we have to remove the disentitlement from your claim. From there it will be two business days.”

“The person I spoke to on the phone said that it would take two business days from the time I phoned to remove the disentitlement, and that I should hand in my list of job applications after that.”

He shakes his head. “Oh, no. We can’t remove a disentitlement until after you come in with your account of job applications. It will be two business days. Who told you otherwise?”

I provide a name.

He continues: “I see that you filed the original claim over ten weeks ago, so you’ll be wanting retroactive benefits. Did you already fill in that form? I couldn’t find it at the front desk.”

I reply that I didn’t know that there existed such a form, and that I thought that the retroactive benefits went without saying when I told Ms. 1-800 at the front desk that I’d filed the original claim ten weeks earlier.

“Hmm,” he says, “she should have given you the form to fill out. I’ll get one for you now.”

Translation: Ms. 1-800 is inept even by EI standards, and I’m grading on a VERY GENEROUS CURVE HERE, PEOPLE.

The guy returns with the form. I observe that I have half a page to explain why I haven’t filled out the biweekly reports for the last ten weeks. “Half a page?” I say. “You’ve seen my file.”

“You can use the back if you want,” he offers.

“Can I attach additional sheets?”

Five minutes later, having availed myself of the stapler on the desk, I complete the tome (”Please see my file for more details,” I conclude sadistically), and hand it to the fellow. He tells me that I should be seeing some money in two business days. I remark that I’ll believe that when I see it. I am not being rude, but I am obviously frustrated, and he responds in quiet, soothing tones - much as I do when dealing with those students of mine who are not being rude, but who are obviously frustrated. Amusingly, even though I know what he is doing, this technique works perfectly on me, and I calm down. I thank the fellow, and leave.

Two business days later, I call the 1-800 number, which I now have on speed dial. I listen to the automated service, which, disappointingly but not surprisingly, informs me that there has been no activity (none!) on my file in the past two weeks. I summon a human being, and go over my story, again, to be told that it will be three weeks before I see any money.

“I was told two business days,” I report.

“That’s incorrect. Who told you that?”

I provide a name.

The operator tells me that she’ll have someone phone me within the next two business days to discuss my situation. I reply that I’ve spent two and a half months discussing my situation, and while that’s certainly been lots of fun for all involved, at this point I’d really prefer to just get some money. She tells me they’re working on it.

Two business days pass. No one phones.

I present myself to the local EI office again, and tell an abridged version of my story to Ms. 1-800. I can tell it’s a whole new story to her, because her face registers no hint of recognition despite the fact that we have met three times before. I can’t really blame her, though; she probably meets a lot of disgruntled unemployed people with similar stories, and sooner or later they probably all blend together in one amorphous mass of disgrunt. “Hmm,” she muses sympathetically, and produces a sheet of paper. “You should call our 1-800 number. There are phones at the back…”

Because there’s no one waiting in line, I seize the opportunity to tell her the entire story, including detailed descriptions of my experiences with her, my experiences with the 1-800 number, and my experiences with her telling me to call the 1-800 number. I request an appointment with a human being. Request granted.

Twenty minutes later, I am sitting with a human being, who tells me that she doesn’t know what that other person was talking about, because it’s never two business days for the file to be processed, it’s one week. But, she tells me, it’s a good thing that I came into talk to that other person, because when you come talk to someone in person, they put your file on someone’s desk, whereas when you just drop off your materials at the front desk, they sit in someone’s outbox for two weeks before getting processed. She tells me this like it’s standard procedure. She dispatches me, telling me that it takes a week to process my file, no, really this time, and if it’s not processed then, to come back.

It’s not processed within a week. I come back and wait in line, and hear the teenaged girl directly in front of me explain that she has a Social Insurance Number, it’s just that she suspects that her mom has been using it illegally to get work. This is taking a long time, and the girl turns around at one point, sees the huge line behind her, and apologizes. I tell her that she’s not the one who should be apologizing, and that I hope she gets her stuff worked out, and that she should take as long as she needs to get this taken care of. She smiles.

When that’s done, I deal with - hallelujah - someone other than Ms. 1-800, who makes an appointment with a human being for me. The wait is short, because while the teenager was trying to get the SIN crap dealt with, the people in front of me got processed. I am called within two minutes, by a tanned woman with frizzy white-blond hair. I walk over to the desk, resolved to play the I’m going to call my MP about this card if my file doesn’t get processed right then and there.

But my resolve weakens when the blond woman gives me the most pained look I’ve ever seen from a government official. “I’ve been reading your file,” she tells me, “and reading and reading and reading it. Dear Lord. We’re going to get this resolved right now.” And then she explains that she is going to personally hunt down the person in charge of my file, and wait as he processes it. I am awestruck.

She phones the person in charge of my file. He does not answer. My heart sinks.

But, get this: the next few minutes consist of this woman, the patron saint of mismanaged EI files, running back and forth, physically hunting down this person. “He’s probably on coffee break,” she tells me. “His secretary tells me he’s in today.” She explains that this might take a few minutes, because she usually works in the call centre, not the local office, so she doesn’t know what this fellow looks like. She dashes off before I can tell her that I don’t mind waiting a few minutes to get my benefits.

Ten minutes later she announces, out of breath, that she found him, and that he’s in the process of looking at my file for the first time. I lean back in my chair and wait, because this can take awhile.

Shortly afterward he phones, and I hear one side of a conversation that goes something like Speaking…no, see, this needs to be dealt with NOW…this woman has been waiting almost three months…she’s filled in all of the relevant forms…yes, I KNOW, but this person keeps being told that it’s going to be taken care of soon, so please just take care of it now and get it over with…okay, thank you.

She hangs up. “It’s all taken care of,” she tells me. She doesn’t seem surprised that taking care of the thing that needed taking care of took all of five seconds once she got a hold of the person responsible. “You will have your money in two business days.” She then takes some information from me, and fills in the last ten weeks’ worth of reports. “Done,” she reports.

I thank her and thank her and thank her, because if she’s not sincere, then at least she’s just given an Oscar-worthy performance.

One business day later, I call the 1-800 number, and for the first time I’m told something other than the fact that there has been no activity on my file. Today, I check my account, and find that my balance has an extra digit to the left of the decimal place. It’s over.

My first purchase is going to be a bouquet of flowers for the last person from the EI office I spoke to.

7/23/2005

One could argue that I went into it with a negative attitude

File under: Know Thyself, What I Did On My Summer Vacation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 3:57 pm.

Because I don’t think I want to spend the rest of my life teaching precalculus to students who can’t compute 5*0 without a calculator, and because the local colleges don’t seem intent on letting me do that anyway, and because a temporary lapse of self-awareness made me completely forget the “independent to a fault, don’t need nothin’ from nobody” aspect of my character, I decided to pay a visit to a career counsellor.

Summary: big, fat waste of time. Upon reflection, I think the biggest problem is that I’d assumed, incorrectly, that an employment counsellor was an expert on jobs. It turns out that an employment counsellor’s expertise is actually a step removed from, and hence a step less useful than, that: mine clearly specialized in the “job-seeking process”. Which meant that when I came in with a list of my skills, interests, and possible employers that I’d like to research (this last one is non-trivial, as there are confidentiality issues involved with the employers I’m interested in; I’m not going to go into details), he couldn’t help me with that. He could, however, refer me to a “career exploration program”, where I’d be able to “explore my strengths and weaknesses”, “discover my interests” and other somesuch; this would be explained in greater detail in the pamphlet he gave me. Leafing through it, I noticed that the first day of the three-week program would be devoted to discovering my Myers-Briggs personality type.

INTJ,” I told him. “And I know what my interests and strengths and weaknesses are. I’m a highly analytical, independent worker with no patience for small talk and routine. I have some types of careers in mind; I need more specialized direction than this.”

From the look on his face, I gathered that no one had ever made such a request before.

That wasn’t the only problem. The meeting, actually, started going poorly even before I shook hands with the man: I arrived on time, and spent the next thirty-five minutes in the waiting room while the counsellor was “almost done, really, we’re sorry about this.” At the stroke of n-thirty, he finally emerged from his office and presented himself to the (newly-hired) secretary, and proceeded to admonish her gently for booking half hour appointments instead of full-hour appointments. He needed a full hour, he explained, for new clients. Somehow this didn’t translate into my own consultation lasting for more than twenty-three minutes, or involving the counsellor doing things like actually reading the resume I’d been instructed to print out, but I was ready to leave after twenty-three minutes (see above) anyway, so I wasn’t about to object.

Once in the room, he took a minute, literally, to scan the form I’d filled out in the waiting room. Like all government forms I’ve ever filled out, this one contained an optional section in which one can identify oneself as belonging to one or more of various groups; like all government forms I’d ever filled out, I opted to leave this part blank. Noticing that I am severe-featured and dark-skinned, the employment counsellor quickly proceeded to engage me in a variant of Twenty Questions that I swear to God I play every other month:

“So, where are you from?”
“Ontario.”
“You were…born there?”
“Yes.”
“Where were your parents born?”
“Quebec.”
“I see…”

Just his luck, I’m third-generation, so he reluctantly abandoned that line. But seriously, I understand why there’s an ethnicity field on these sorts of forms, but I understand even more so why filling out such a section is optional, and I resent it when people who really should know better try to coax such information out of me. Am I the first person who has ever chosen not to fill in a few optional fields on a government form? Shee.

(Aside: every now and again someone asks me, point-blank, “What is your ethnicity?” I’ve had bad luck answering honestly, as my experience has been that more people fancy themselves experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than is warranted, and a lot of them are just dying to give their input on the matter. Finding out that the bloodline of their interlocutor intersects with that of some folks who live in that region, by the way, apparently constitutes a capital opportunity to do so. So when the Swedish hosts of a B&B on Denman Island posed the question, I responded in my preferred way: by selecting, at random, a country that lies roughly on the line joining Warsaw to Bombay, and claiming ancestry. “I’m half Turkish,” I lied, and the Swedish wife turned to the husband and said something rushed and excited that had the cadence of I told you, didn’t I tell you? and the husband turned to me and smiled weakly, as though to say, No she didn’t, but what can I do?)

Back to the meeting: the best I could say about it is that unlike almost all of the academic types who have counselled me on employment, Employment Counsellor was not of the mind that I’d never get anywhere without a Ph.D. Alas, he opted for the other extreme, and wrote off my education altogether: “Oh, I see you can use a computer,” he remarked approvingly, as he glanced at my resume, skipping over things like the title of my thesis (understandable), my Dean’s List placement at my alma mater (less so), and a description of the ceramic dinner set I’d been commissioned to make (ok, fine). And, yes, I can use a computer to a degree that puts me in direct competition with only three quarters of the youth in my province, rather than all of them, but, my lord.

Like many members of my demographic - gifted kids of professionals, who were directed to seek scholarship, rather than employment, in their studies, and who were never given much guidance with regards to the latter - I am finding myself suspended between two distinct groups that are, for opposite reasons, ill-suited to help me. On the one hand are the intellectuals who can’t fathom a universe outside the academy, and hence cannot help me find my way in that world; on the other, the folks who never studied a subject as abstract and as technical as mathematics beyond the high school level, and consequently can’t provide the specialized direction I need to apply my own abstract and technical interests and skills outside the academy. Frustrating, because I know that there are math folks employed in statistics and in finance and in the military and elsewhere, and they didn’t hatch ready-made inside their cubicles.

7/3/2005

Transition

File under: Home And Native Land, What I Did On My Summer Vacation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 1:23 pm.

Greetings from the happiest place on earth - Mathcamp - where I just realized that I’ll be spending ten consecutive days in the same place, the longest stretch of time I’ll be in one place in two months.

Meanwhile: all of my material possessions (except for the goddamned computer, goddammit) now reside in a storage locker in Vancouver.

Yes, I'm stealing bandwidth. This is what happens when you're at an internet cafe and can't transfer your files. When you live, by yourself, on an island (*) and don’t own a car, such a maneuver requires a lot of careful planning. Rent van; make itinerary of visits to lockers to check them out before committing to any; schedule trips to and from the mainland so as to allow sufficient time to scout out downtown lockers before rush hour and then to transfer materials to chosen locker; return before the last ferry of the day so as to avoid staying overnight in hotel. All of these are subject to last-minute inconveniences: car rental places may be understaffed and deliver your car late, traffic in downtown Vancouver may suck even harder than it did last time, a ferry may run aground and take out twenty-odd boats and result in the cancellation of all service to and from the Island for the rest of the business day. Granted, it’s nice when your ferry schedule makes national news and you don’t have to call 1-800-BC-FERRY to be put on hold for five minutes and be given outdated information anyway (**), but still. No one was hurt, but several hundred people were kept on board for seven (7) hours after the crash, and but for a series of coincidences, I’d have been one of them. Unhurt, but stuck on a ferry with a van full of heavy boxes, kept aboard until after the storage lockers closed for the day, on June 30, a day before Canada Day, when all the storage lockers in Vancouver are closed for the day, and don’t open until after I’ve boarded a train to the US.

Now, to point form, since things are crazy here and I’m being called away every few minutes:

  1. There’s a $400 surcharge for dropping off a van rented on the Island, on the mainland. Since travelling between the Island and the mainland with a car costs $45 each way and takes half a day, and since I can’t imagine employees at a car rental place make much more than $100 for that amount of time it takes to transfer the van back, and since the car rental place has locations in both cities I was travelling between anyway and has a million vans and what’s the difference anyway if one of them stays in Vancouver, this is a very sweet deal indeed for the folks at Budget Rent-a-Car. Consequently, my plan to take the Queen of Oak Bay at 8:30 am on June 30 to Horseshoe Bay had to be changed: to Vancouver on the 29th, back to the Island later that evening, and then back to Vancouver by foot the next day.
  2. Over at the storage locker: a massive truck pulled up along the driver’s side my rented Dodge Caravan, leaving me unable to open the driver’s door. I did what anyone who found herself in such unremarkable circumstances would do: I unlocked the passenger door, with a key, slid over, and stuck the key in the ignition. A siren sounded, and the engine didn’t take. Confused, I called the guy at the rental place. After a false diganosis (leading me to recruit a cabbie from the taxi company next door for a jump, which didn’t work, and being told by said cabbie tht he was being “very generous” by charging me only $10 for the five minutes he was at my service), the rental dude figured out that the car alarm sounds whenever you unlock the passenger-side door first. Because this is how cars are stolen these days: some cunning thief unlocks the passenger-side door, and starts the engine with a key. Except that when the thief’s target is a Dodge Caravan, he’s been thwarted. Thanks, Dodge!

    Related - other, related inane “security” measures I’ve run across lately:

    • I haven’t yet seen a dime of my employment insurance. I made the mistake of using my parents’ permanent address instead of my temporary one, which resulted in my file being flagged. The good folks at EI, while unfamiliar with that downwardly-mobile demographic of which I am a part - twentysomething transients with more education than job prospects, who almost-yearly move to wherever there is work or school - are apparently well-acquainted with that group of unemployed folk who try to defraud the system by filing a single application, under their actual names and social insurance numbers, but listing a different province than the one they’re filing the application from. I may be unemployed, but I’m not stupid, and if I were trying to bleed the system I’d like think I’d be a bit more imaginative, but whatever. So: my file is being transferred from Ontario to BC, which takes four (4) weeks. Feel free to speculate, in the comments, what in the act of transferring a file could possibly take four weeks. Is the EI office hiring? Because I can totally streamline this process for them.

    • If you don’t live in the US, but wish to travel in the US by Greyhound, you’re out of luck. They won’t take your credit card. You can get an American friend of yours to purchase the ticket on their credit card, but then you will have to pay a $15 “gift charge”. Sources of various degrees of reliability tell me that this crackdown on Canadian residents is a consequence of the PATRIOT Act. This seems completely stupid to me, but it’s less stupid than voluntarily turning down business from Canadians, so it’s probably true.
  3. After dropping off my belongings in the storage locker, I made my way to the ferry, forgetting that it’s faster to walk on one’s hands than it is to drive through downtown Vancouver during rush hour. Because of that, combined with the delay caused by the car-alarm fiasco, I missed the second-to-last ferry back to the Island. I didn’t get home until midnight. Exhausted, I slept in. Past seven. Missing the June 30, 8:30 am ferry to Horseshoe Bay.
  4. Which ran aground at 10:10, leaving passengers stranded on board for seven hours.

And that was how a series of little inconveniences allowed me to avoid one big inconvenience, or something. I’m busy and tired and haven’t proofread this, so maybe this post is about something entirely different.

(*) As in, no one shares my apartment, not that I own a private island or anything.

(**) In all fairness, it should be noted that ferry service to and from Vancouver Island is, in general, spectacularly efficient.

6/5/2005

Something for you to do while I vacation yet some more

File under: Queen of Sciences, What I Did On My Summer Vacation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:57 pm.

In a few days I’ll be setting out to visit some more of the Gulf Islands. One of them doesn’t allow cars, and is powered entirely by generators. At least two lack bank machines. One is rumoured to have “honesty stands” where local artists leave their work unattended and trust visitors to pay for what they take. Only one has more than a thousand full-time residents. I may at some point pop into a cafe for a few minutes on a rainy day to avail myself of the dial-up connection on the island’s IBM 486 , but don’t hold your breath. I will be making notes on postcards, so holler if you want one.

In the meantime, some of you may be able to help me with a project I’m thinking about working on one of these days book I have no excuse not to work on now that I don’t have a pesky job to worry about. A bit of background: for the last five years, I have worked at an academic summer camp for mathematically gifted high school students. One of my favourite classes to teach - and one of the most popular among the campers - has been one that I call “Calculus Without Calculus”. Those of my readers who know me in real life are well aware that I…well, I don’t hate calculus, so much as I think that calculus doesn’t need me to love it. Calculus gets more than enough attention in the thousands of high schools and universities that inflict it upon every other student that passes through their doors, the overwhelming majority of whom don’t learn it properly and wouldn’t ever use it again even if they did. Nevertheless, calculus is a natural choice for students who have not learned to think mathematically: for all the terror it strikes in students’ hearts, it’s one of the easier branches of mathematics to reduce to mindless algorithms in a low-level course. Need to maximize some quantity? Set a derivative to zero, and solve. What were we trying to do again?

Calculus Without Calculus is a collection of methods of solving typical calculus problems without taking a single derivative. The two main methods involve inequalities, or exploiting geometric properties of figures, particularly symmetry. The old “maximize area with given cost of rectangular fence” problem? You can complete the square, take a derivative - or you can apply the AM-GM inequality. The question about getting the best view of the statue on a pedestal, that appears in the chapter on inverse trig functions in every single calculus book? Solvable using elementary circle geometry that could be found in every grade ten math text before it was decreed that geometry should no longer be taught. There are tons of these. I know of three calculus-free methods of finding tangents to ellipses: one using transformations of circles, another using the Cauchy-Schwartz inequality, and one using projective geometry. A few months ago, I was reading some fiction on the Vietnam War - One To Count Cadence, by James Crumley - and one of the characters mentions in passing that he was able to solve the ladder-around-a-corner problem (you know the one) without calculus. I struggled with that for a long time before a camper provided the key insight. A quick application of Holder’s Inequality, and the result falls right out. (Except that now I’m trying to recreate it. Damn; this is going to keep me up again.)

I’m sure there’s a lot more to say on the topic, and I’d like to write a (short) book on the topic. What I’m looking for: book recs. In particular, recommendations for good books on problem-solving, which tend to spend a lot of time on funky inequalities. I’m especially interested in geometric and otherwise intuitive proofs for the old standbys (AM-GM, Holder’s, C-S…) , and lots of examples - both of single variable problems that one would see in calculus texts, as well as multivariable ones that are a lot easier to solve without calculus. One of my favourite books of this sort is Problem Solving Through Problems, by Loren Larson, the talented mathematician and educator who first introduced me to this stuff. If you’ve got any recs, or anything even slightly pertinent, I’d love to hear them - post them below so I’ll have something to check out when I return to this big island.

My other reason for posting this, of course, is that now I’ll feel horribly guilty if I don’t actually have anything to show for this in a few weeks.

And, if [above] isn’t your thing, perhaps the Phallic Logo Awards can keep you busy for the next week. (What’s this you want, a better segue? Here: Galiano Island.)

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