Friday, March 27, 2009

Tumbarumba, the Random Story Dispenser

If you use Firefox, enjoy reading science fiction and fantasy stories (especially free ones!) and don't mind surprises while surfing the web, you should consider giving Tumbarumba a try.

Tumbarumba is an art project and Firefox add-on that comes with twelve stories. When it is first installed, the stories are inaccessible to you. You need to unlock them, one by one, which you do by doing what you usually do with your browser anyway: surfing the web.

Tumbarumba looks through the web pages you access for words that are also found in its twelve stories. When it finds a match, it splices the rest of the story's sentence to the beginning of the web page's sentence, producing a new sentence that is syntactically sound but doesn't make much sense.

To take an example from my own Tumbarumba-tinted surfing, the Tales of the Talisman's web site contains this sentence:

The hadrosaur talisman logo is inspired by a duckbilled dinosaur called a tsintaosaurus.

As well, the Tumbarumba story "The Little M@tch Girl" contains this sentence:

As Nera tossed him his fare, he called, 'Have fun, little sluts.'"

The word common to both these sentences is "called." So when I came across the Tales of the Talisman web page, I was faced with this puzzling declaration:

The hadrosaur talisman logo is inspired by a duckbilled dinosaur called "Have fun, little sluts. [sic]

When you come across one of these gibberish sentences, you can either conclude that the writer was smoking some bad weed when he wrote it, or that your Tumbarumba has kicked in. To find out which is the case, slide your mouse pointer over the anomalous sentence. If it changes to a link pointer , that's Tumbarumba. Click, and the add-on will insert another chunk of story text. If you keep clicking, eventually (in my experience, it varies from one to five clicks) the original web page text will fade out and the story will fade in.

Tumbarumba stories don't have their own web pages. The only way you can read the twelve stories is to allow them to hijack the web pages you are reading. The story text is forced into the format of the web page, sometimes with awkward results. I had one story that began in the thin left-hand column where the original web page had had its menu. Another story took over a form, which resulted in the story text being interrupted by fields. If you don't like the resulting format or find it unreadable, just wait, and eventually that same story will hijack a different web page.

To go back to reading the original web page, open the Tumbarumba pull-down menu in your Firefox browser, and select "Disable Tumbarumba on this page."

If you go to the Tumbarumba Table of Contents, also accessible from the pull-down menu, you should find that the story is now unlocked; that is, it is no longer plain text but is clickable. (Should: Tumbarumba does have bugs. See below.) One thing I haven't figured out yet is whether clicking just once on the gibberish sentence will unlock the story, or whether you have to keep clicking until the story hijacks the page. I suspect it's the latter but haven't experimented enough to be sure.

Obviously, this add-on is not for everyone. Some people would find it annoying. However, there's no risk involved in trying it, as you can always turn it off completely, again via the pull-down menu.

I have unlocked seven stories so far, and gotten around to reading three and a half. (The fourth was not to my taste.) Mostly, they're quite good. "Little M@tch Girl," a futuristic retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson classic, could haunt your dreams.

But the stories are not the only pleasure Tumbarumba has to offer. There's also the experience of coming across a sentence that produces a mental double-take. I've found it interesting to observe my brain's reaction to these sentences. First, it tries to go on reading, thanks to that built-in mechanism we all have in our brains that glides over anything that doesn't compute. This makes us more robust than those women robots encountered by the Starship Enterprise, that would break down when faced with paradoxical or nonsense statements.

So I tended to read on for a couple of sentences, then think, wait a minute, and rewind to the offending sentence. I'd reread it a few times and wonder what the author had been thinking. Only then would I remember: oh yeah, Tumbarumba. But this reaction varied if the sentence made sense in a whimsical sort of way. When I saw the dinosaur sentence mentioned above, my first thought was, "What a silly name for a dinosaur!"

I have since found that as I get more accustomed to the effect, I become quicker and quicker to recognize the gibberish as the result of Tumbarumba. Recently, I've even been able to skip the whole double-take routine. I kind of miss it. It's a reminder of what a small piece of reality we normally perceive. I also like feeling the shift in perception that comes at the moment of understanding. It feels like a bit of enlightenment.

Happily, I can still be tripped up in certain situations. Recently, I was searching the provincial government's web page for information on their latest budget, as research for my blog post on the subject. I read that the budget "provides Leadership for a Stronger horizontal," and laughed with glee at the lengths to which officials will go with their obfuscating jargonspeak. I had no idea what was meant by "a stronger horizontal," but I didn't doubt for a moment that it was something that would be put on a government web page. Like other inhabitants of modern society, I long ago abandoned the expectation that government officials would make sense, either linguistically or ethically. I decided to copy the sentence, because it was so funny, and it was only when the mouse pointer changed to a link pointer that I realized, at last, that I'd been Tumbarumba'ed.

The original phrase was actually "a budget that provides Leadership for a Stronger Economy." OK, that does make slightly more sense, even if it's hard to imagine how a budget can provide leadership.

To download Tumbarumba and try it yourself, go to the Tumbarumba home page and click on "Download." Note that you have to have Javascript enabled in your browser to navigate the home page.

Bug Notes: After I'd unlocked my first Tumbarumba story, I found that the hijacking mechanism kept failing. The original web page would fade out, but the story would not fade in, nor would it become clickable in the Table of Contents. I contacted support, and was told that there was probably something about the web pages that was interfering with Tumbarumba. I found this unlikely, since it had happened three times in a row. When I went back to the one story I'd unlocked, I found that I had disabled Tumbarumba on that page. I enabled it, and after that everything worked fine. This leads me to conclude that there is a bug in the disable mechanism, though the support guy might not agree with me. I feel even more certain of that since the most recent story failed to unlock in the Table of Contents. I had disabled that page as well. So if you have problems with Tumbarumba, try enabling all the disabled pages and see if that does the trick.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The New Brunswick Government's Plan to Provide More Jobs for People in Other Countries

A couple of days ago, I was asked to do a survey over the phone on what I thought of the New Brunswick's government's new budget. At the time, I didn't know anything about the new budget, but I did the survey anyway, answering in the negative to almost all of the questions, because that's how much confidence I have in this government. By adjusting taxes so that the poor and middle class pay more and the rich less, Shawn Graham has demonstrated that he is in the pocket of big business (which in New Brunswick is usually spelled I‑R‑V‑I‑N‑G).

Today I decided I should become a little more informed on the subject, so I went to the government web page. I found a hefty document that I am not going to read, ever, because life is too short. However, its title, The Plan for Lower Taxes in New Brunswick 2009-2012, makes the budget's main point clear. Somehow, lower taxes will boost the flagging economy and create jobs. Conservatives have a remarkable faith in the magical power of lowering taxes. The funny thing is, this government is Liberal. At least in name.

Luckily for me, Charles LeBlanc has his own shorter and more readable summary of the budget. According to him, 700 civil service jobs are being cut. It is curious that the government plans to create jobs by cutting jobs, but I'm sure Shawn Graham can explain it, or at least whitter on in a confusing manner until everyone has forgotten the original question.

But here, for me, is the kicker. That telephone call I got, about the survey? The heavily accented voice at the other end made it clear that the call centre was located in India.

There are no shortage of call centres in New Brunswick. In fact, in the 1990's the provincial government of the time put a lot of effort into attracting call centres to New Brunswick. They wanted to make New Brunswick the call centre capital of the world. That didn't work out, yet New Brunswick still has a lot of call centres.

But when the New Brunswick government wants to survey its own people about its budget, where does it turn to find a call centre? India.

I think that says everything we need to know about how sincere Shawn Graham and his government aren't about creating jobs in New Brunswick.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Going Outside

We all know it's good to go outside when the sun is shining because you can get your Vitamin D, as well as some exercise and fresh air.

We also all know it's bad to go outside when the sun is shining because you can get sunburns, as well as skin damage and melanoma.

We're actually kind of ambivalent about going outside, and not just because of ultraviolet light. We love to bask in the sun, and some of us even like to bake our pale skin in it until it's brown (those of us who have pale skin, that is; I don't want to make anybody feel left out here). Yet we also love to sit in our comfortable homes with our sofas, books and television sets.

Isaac Asimov wrote a great essay once about why he hated "nice days," that is to say, days when the sun is shining. People would say to him, "What are doing inside on such a beautiful day?" (Of course, this was back in the days when people said such things. Nowadays we just call up whatever weather or world we want on our various little screens and monitors.) Asimov didn't want to go outside, even on beautiful days. He wanted to stay inside and write. And the results speak for themselves--you don't churn out a jaw-dropping 500-plus books in one lifetime by doing outdoorsy things.

Given this propensity of human beings to stay indoors on occasion, you would think we'd have a little more understanding of and sympathy for chickens. Have I just confused you? Let me explain. I have sometimes heard the argument that there is no point in raising chickens free-range--in giving them access to the outside--because chickens don't want to go outside anyway. Personally, I have visited small, organic farms and I am here to tell you that chickens do go outside. I was at a farm on an overcast day and almost all the chickens were outside. Perhaps on sunny days they like to be in the shade. I don't know. My point is that just because chickens don't always choose to go outside doesn't mean they're just as happy being under permanent house arrest. Think about it: sometimes you like to stay inside; does that mean you wouldn't complain if you were locked in your house and never allowed out again? Isaac Asimov often chose to stay in his office and bang away on his typewriter (which was a mechanical thing that people used before desktop computers were invented), but do you think he would have liked it if somebody locked him up in a little cage? Even if it had a typewriter in it? Of course not! He would have been very upset, although not nearly as upset as he would have been had the cage had no typewriter.

Try to put yourself in the chicken's place, mentally. Walk a mile in the chicken's... uh, talons. We're really not that different from chickens, if you think about it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

My Weekend In Prince Edward Island

I may not be in primary school anymore, but that doesn't mean I can't write about What I Did On My Summer Vacation. It may be an odd time of year for it, but keep in mind I only started this blog in December.

We were only there for a weekend and had time only to see a tiny fraction of PEI, so don't take this as a comprehensive review, but my favorite spot was the national park in Cavendish. Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, was also fond of it, and is quoted on some of its placards. From a boardwalk leading through a marsh, you can see a tremendous array of life. When I saw that parts of the water were bright green, I was at first concerned it was an algae bloom. On closer inspection, the green carpet turned out to be made up of thousands of tiny plants that floated on the water. I'd never seen anything like it before. I still don't know what it was, since they had no placard for it.

Close by the marsh is a beautiful beach where the famous red sand and sandstone cliffs are on full display. Though it was July, you could only wade into the seawater for half a minute before the ache of cold in your bones would send you running screaming back out again.

Don't expect me to continue in this cheerful vein; not as long as there's something to complain about. I don't call this blog Kvetch of the Day for nothing.

I think PEI must be located in some sort of Canadian version of the Bermuda Triangle. What I mean, if you will excuse a brief slide into vulgar colloquialism, is that there is some weird shit going down over there.

Foremost of which is the tendency of shopkeepers to peel the "Made in China" stickers off their merchandise. When I first saw this, it was in a restaurant in Cornwall that had a few touristy items for sale at the counter: little wooden boats, doodads with shells glued on, that kind of thing. I picked one up and turned it over to discover paper and glue remnants in a partial oval. This surprising discovery led me to turn over all the knick-knacks. One or two still had their "Made in China" stickers; all the rest had been peeled.

I thought it must have been an oddity of that particular restaurant until we went to another restaurant, a huge slop-dishing affair in Cavendish with a gift shop attached. I don't know what possessed me; maybe it's just what I do in stores because I like to know where things come from; in any case, I turned their souvenirs over and found the same thing.

Excuse me, but isn't this illegal? Those stickers are there for a reason. People are entitled to know where their purchases came from. What possesses shopkeepers to do this?

I decided that the shopkeepers must be embarrassed that their souvenirs of P.E.I., seashells and all, were manufactured at the other end of the planet. I wouldn't blame them--for the embarrassment that is--but a better reaction would be stock locally-made souvenirs. Then they wouldn't need to engage in shameful, furtive sticker-picking.

This theory took a bit of a beating when I purchased a metal water bottle at Moonsnail Soapworks & Nature Store in Charlottetown. A very untouristy item, yet when I turned it over... I think you can guess what I found. In fact, you can see it in the picture. PEI has several symbols, including a provincial bird (blue jay) and a provincial flower (lady's slipper), but if they want something that will capture the essence of the tourist experience in PEI, they should consider adding the vaguely oval glue-and-paper smear to the list. I hereby offer this photo to the PEI government for consideration.

The effect of Canada's Bermuda Triangle on the human brain is indeed mysterious, as was brought home to me yet again when I forgot my bathrobe in the room we'd rented at Obanbrae Farm Bed & Breakfast. I called the hostess a couple of days later, only to be told she'd already thrown it out. She didn't even give it to a charity shop. At least then I would have the satisfaction of knowing that somebody somewhere was getting use of a bathrobe that was still in perfectly good condition. But no, I suppose that would have taken up to much of her valuable time, and nothing that did not belong in her neurotically neat domain could be permitted to stay there for more than a couple of days. So into the garbage it went.

Another big surprise was the driving in the Charlottetown area. The sheer number of times you get cut off in a single journey is astounding. It was like driving in Montreal--also an island. Is there something about islands that makes people drive badly? You would think they'd be afraid that their fellow islanders would get fed up and pitch them into the surrounding sea or St. Laurence River. Come to think of it, that's not such a bad idea.

The bad behaviour does not necessarily come to a halt when the vehicle does. James and I stopped at a roadside stand to get junk food. An elderly couple arrived in a truck. The old man parked and left his wife in the idling truck while he bought two ice creams. I expected that he would drive away and eat the ice creams on the road. Instead, he and his wife sat in the truck licking their ice creams, while the truck continued to idle, rumbling pollution into the parking lot so that everyone else lined up at the stand could enjoy the fumes.

After ten minutes, my brain was sufficiently addled by exhaust that it seemed like a good idea to ask him why he was doing this. The influence of the Canadian Bermuda Triangle might also have been a factor. I walked up to the truck and tapped on the driver's side window. He rolled it down.

"Hi," I said. "I'm just wondering why you're idling your motor."

"I don't know," he said. "Why?"

So I enumerated the drawbacks as I perceived them: pollution, noise, waste of gas and money. I finished by saying I couldn't understand why he was doing it.

"No," he said, "I don't expect that someone like you would."

I was still chuckling over this clever witticism when he informed me indignantly that he had to idle the motor or it wouldn't start again.

"Oh," I said.

"And it's none of your business anyway!" said his wife, glaring at me as her husband rolled up the window.

"I just asked a question," I protested through the ever-narrowing gap in the window, but the woman continued to glare at me. So I gave her the finger.

Later, having had some time to think it over, I decided the old goat was probably lying through his teeth. There was a garage a short distance from the food stand. Any sensible person with a non-starting truck would take it to the garage before going for ice cream. If he'd had such a hankering for soft-serve, he could have walked over and bought some while they worked on his truck. Besides, his first response was that he didn't know why he was idling. I suppose he had time to cook something up while I talked.

Why even bother to come up with a story? Why not just say, "I feel like idling my truck. I don't give a damn about pollution. Go away,"? It could be he lied because I'd caught him out and he was feeling embarrassment, much like the merchant peeling "Made in China" stickers.

We spent most of our time in Charlottetown, which in retrospect was a shame. It hasn't got a lot going for it, other than Province House, which is OK. The downtown core consists of restaurants, mostly mediocre, and boutiques which seem chi-chi until you go inside and discover that they're full of merchandise from China with the stickers peeled off. The Chocolate Factory has a lot of mediocre chocolate that is mostly sugar. It is attached to The Anne of Green Gables Store, the ultimate destination for Anne fanatics. (Maybe they should be called Anneatics?) At a nearby theatre, you can see Anne of Green Gables: The Musical, which costs as much as an opera and doesn't have any good songs. You can save a lot of money by hanging out in the Anne of Green Gables Store, where they play the soundtrack. Stay there long enough and you'll hear the whole thing.

It may be PEI's capital city and it may be comparatively near the Confederation Bridge, but Charlottetown is not where you should spend a lot of time in PEI, especially if you're there for a short time as we were.

Speaking of the Confederation Bridge, I'm sure it is a marvel of modern engineering and blah blah blah, but I wish they hadn't built it. They used to have a ferry that went that way. For the same price ($40) we could have been on the water, enjoying the salty spray that they sing about in Anne of Green Gables: The Musical. Instead, we spent ten minutes--and felt every individual minute--staring at a strip of grey cement running off into the empty sky. There is no more boring drive in the world. So what if it's quicker? People need to get over the idea that quicker is better. And they need to make a similar mental shift with regards to "bigger," as exemplified by the hideously inflated tourist "village" that awaits you at the other end of the bridge. That's another wonder of modern engineering that should never have been built.

But to return to my point--don't waste your trip by spending any length of it in the Charlottetown area. Spend your time at the beaches and parks. Our trip improved noticeably when we headed north to Cavendish, and I wish we had sooner. We did not have time to see all the sights in the area, such as Montgomery's house. Next time I think we will immediately head north after crossing the Confederation Bridge, and stay there.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Silliest New Product Award

Welcome to the premiere Silliest New Product Award. I hope it will be the first of many. This award will be presented on my blog, on an irregular basis, to the silliest new product that I happen to see advertised or for sale in stores. The prize will consist of exuberant mockery.

The lucky first-ever recipient of the Silliest New Product Award is... excuse me while I open the imaginary envelope... Kraft Bagel-fuls.

What are Bagel-fuls? According to Kraft, a Bagel-ful is "a golden bagel and Philadelphia cream cheese rolled into one." The bagel part of that is debatable. A bagel is not a bagel unless it has been first boiled, then baked in a brick oven. Is Kraft really going to that kind of effort? I doubt it, especially since they have no prior bagel experience. It's no easy matter to find a decent bagel unless you live in Montreal or New York. Otherwise, what passes as a "bagel" is more like ordinary bread baked in a doughnut shape. So let's say, rather, that the Bagel-ful is a large breadstick with a little cream cheese stuffed inside.

We have determined what it is, but the larger mystery is what it's for. The description on the Kraft web page contains the phrase "on-the-go, " so it appears that the Bagel-ful is aimed at busy people who lack the time to slice a bagel in half and spread cream cheese on it. No doubt these people also insert catheters every work day, because if bagel-slicing and spreading is too time-consuming for you, there is no way you can afford a trip to the bathroom. Not with your "on-the-go lifestyle."

To be fair, I suppose slicing a bagel can be a little challenging, especially if you're not Jewish and didn't learn the technique in childhood, as I did. Luckily, there are devices to help you do it. And if you're not toasting the bagel (because that takes too long), it can be difficult to spread hard cream cheese over it. But that's why spreadable cream cheese was invented. Anyway, Philadelphia does not constitute good cream cheese. One of the great mysteries of the food world is that people all over North America are convinced that Philadelphia cream cheese is the best around. Hell no. Good cream cheese does not come in a hard block wrapped in shiny paper, nor does it contain ingredients like "guar gum." Want good cream cheese? Try Liberty.

There are really two points I want to make here. One is that if you think you're so busy you can't stop to eat a decent meal, then you have bigger problems than food preparation, and are en route to ulcers, heart disease or myriad other stress-related ailments.

The other is that good food is worth taking trouble for, and slicing a bagel and spreading cream cheese on it does not take much trouble. And if you do it yourself, you can put on as much cream cheese as you want. Apparently Bagel-fuls are skimpy on the cream cheese.

A product this silly is bound to have silly advertising to go with it, and indeed Bagel-fuls does. I laugh myself silly every time the Bagel-fuls ad comes on TV. Two women are on a bus. One watches enviously as the other eats a Bagel-ful, and says, "Aren't you afraid someone's going to steal it?"

Yes, pretend bagels containing paltry amounts of cream cheese are so sought-after that Bagel-ful Crime is a real concern in urban areas. They're the new Vuarnet sunglasses.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Poll Results

The results of my first poll are in--and when I say "first poll," I mean the first poll to actually have results. I had another poll up before, but no one answered it.

This particular poll looked all right as a form but made a terrible results display. The reason for this is that I had long questions. For reasons known only to the programmers, the questions wrapped in the form (that is, where the reader makes a selection), but not in the results, which led to a horizontal scroll bar appearing. It was quite unsightly, and I didn't want to keep such an ugly thing on my page. If you ask me, the poll widget could use a bit of work. This is not the only problem I have had with it. If you try to change the poll ending time, and you do not stick exactly to the original format (right down to all caps for the AM/PM!) the thing freezes. You can't save and you can't go back. You lose your poll and have to start from scratch and retype everything. Very frustrating. Probably the best thing to do is not change the ending time, but alas, I'm anal and I like my polls to end at midnight, so in the future I will be very, very careful to capitalize AM and PM.

But in any case, it's nice to put the results in a post so that they are archived. The poll widget does not provide an archive feature. It's a buggy bare-bones kind of a thing. But enough kvetching; on to the results:

What does the future hold?

Flying around in hovercrafts like the Jetsons2 (40%)
Utopia of clean energy and sustainable living0 (0%)
Return to subsistence farming1 (20%)
Relocation to another, earthlike planet0 (0%)
Mass death from global-warming-related starvation, plague or war1 (20%)
The Rapture: all good Christians floating up to heaven while non-Christians are left down here to rot0 (0%)
Other1 (20%)

Number of votes: 5

As you can see, "flying around in hovercrafts like the Jetsons" got the highest number of votes! I'm hoping that the respondents were just being funny. I mean, it's cute but terribly naive. Then again, I'm heartened by the fact that nobody voted for The Rapture. I'm guessing that that particular subset of Christians prefers to hang out at other blogs.

Mass death got one vote, but in all fairness I should admit that that vote came from me. This is not because I am in favour of mass death in any way, but because in my pessimistic moments, which are frequent, I think it's our likeliest fate. It's not just me; James Lovelock thinks so too (see his interview in New Scientist, January 24, 2008). There's also one vote for subsistence farming, which is my outlook as well, when I'm in a more optimistic mood. But come to think of it, you can have both. First mass death, then subsistence farming for whoever is left.

A utopia of clean energy and sustainable living would be nice, but none of my respondents think it's going to happen. That's a shame. On the other hand, none of my respondents think relocation to another planet is going to happen. Some people see that possibility as a way to save the earth: all the humans leave and the earth recovers in their absence. Scott Westerfeld explores the concept in his novel Extras, the sequel to the Uglies trilogy. But that scenario necessitates everyone leaving. I wouldn't do it. I don't think I could bear to leave earth. It would kill me. Also, were it an option, some people would see it as license to make as big a mess as they want. Why worry about a planet's environment if there's always another planet to hop to? The universe is infinite, after all. Such a prospect makes me ill. That's why I don't support the planet-hopping option.

I hope to get more respondents for my future polls, as it's impossible to draw conclusions, scientific or otherwise, from such a small sample.