2002-04-26

The omens are loooking good. Mark Shuttleworth is in orbit. Yesterday's Astronomy Picture of the Day was of the Southern Cross. The Americans gave us a farewell lunch. All very positive signs.

The time I've spent here has been incredible. What an education! I've learned so much. About Chicago, about the US and most of all, about me. Some of my preconceptions have been shattered. Some have been reinforced. I've learned things that I didn't think I wanted to.

Important lessons number one: Chicago is cold. I expected it to be, this being the Frozen North, but I was not nearly prepared for the sheer scale of it. That took some serious getting used to. In the end, I managed to acclimatise quite well. I never expected to see the day when I would casually walk to work in subzero temperatures, snow flying through the air almost horizontally. The plus side of that is that winter in Johannesburg is going to be a picnic.

I was delighted by how beautiful the city is, the buildings, the parks, the art. I loved the public transport system. Buses and trains that run all day and night (not all of them, but most of the ones I wanted) are such a good idea. And of course the nightlife here is excellent. Lots of pubs, lots of clubs, lots of music venues. Of course, they all close at 2 am, which I've complained about before, but there had to be a downside.

I was, eventually, pleasantly surprised that a lot of people here are very friendly. I missed that for the first few weeks because I was being very depressed, but when I got over that, it became clear. No-one asked where South Africa was, which was a relief. I've read all these horror stories about how 62.876% of Americans can't find Alaska on a map or whatever, so I was expecting the worst, but it didn't happen. I got a lot of "You don't look African". I was very tempted to respond with "Well, yes, and you don't look Native American", but my restraint was admirable.

I learned quickly that there are some topics that I should not discuss. It was literally "Don't mention the war." People got upset if I mentioned that I didn't think it was a good idea. I was accused of being un-American. Well, I'm not American, so I can be un-American if I like. I was emphatically told that America was here to protect freedom and democracy. Actually, no. America is here to protect America, and that's about it. Anything else is probably wishful thinking. I seem to have survived without even a single lynching attempt, so maybe I learned some tact in the end.

I was very depressed for the first few weeks. There were a lot of contributing factors. I was a stranger in a a strange land. I was alone. Everyone and everything I loved was thousands of miles away. I was too cold to go anywhere or do anything. It was my worst nightmare. Being alone was the worst.

I don't make friends easily. I used to think that my brain was missing some essential circuit that allowed other people to just strike up a conversation with a total stranger and survive through those vital few minutes that lead to a decision to continue this or run screaming. But being completely isolated here and horribly depressed forced me to go look for that circuit. I had to dig up and sift through vast accumulations of memory and pain and fear, but I managed to find it in the end. Or at least a reasonable facsimile.

That was close to the hardest thing I've ever done. A lot of people are afraid of rejection. For me, it expressed itself by avoiding almost any situation where there was potential for rejection. It's not gone completely. That would be too good to be true. But I think I'm making progress.

This is my last post for a few days. I won't be within posting range until Sunday and then I will probably feel like death warmed over and left to congeal.

Boredom and email brought me some fun links today:

Psst, want to know the Truth? Check with the Tool of Objective Truth. They use AltaVista to do the searches, but I think I may finally have found a use for the Google API. It's pretty amazing. Thanks Rex.

If you've been reading blogs that try to convince you of someone's theory about absolutely anything, you should definitely look at this site. It's a collection of common logical fallacies often found in arguments for or against something. It also gives you pointers on how to refute such arguments. Look though it and you'll recognise a lot of them from your reading on the Web and newspapers and from politicians' speeches.

Ever followed a link to the New York Times? Here's the end of all your regstration woes: The NYT Random Login Generator.

2002-04-25

Just one more day. I'm probably going to be bored as all hell again for most of the day, but I'll try not to mind. Not too much anyway. I'll just surf the Web, find obscure sites to look at and fail miserably to resist buying stuff. Hey, it worked yesterday.

The last couple of days have been busy, busy, busy. Busy trying to get work done mostly. Trying a little too hard as it turns out, but that's better than not hard enough. The last thing I want is to be sitting at my desk swallowing caffeine pills and getting all sweaty palmed.

I am torn between wanting to leave already and wanting to spend more time here. On the one hand I want to be at home, lying on my bed with the cats curled up next to me, purring loudly. Or sitting chatting to Alka over a glass of wine, or three. Or inflicting an American accent on poor unsupecting South Africans. On the other hand, I want to stay here a while longer. Be a real tourist for a bit. See what Chicago is like as it warms up. Go see Star Wars Episode II on opening night. Get to know a few more people. And on the third hand, I'll be coming back, I'm sure.

In any case, staying here will be way too hard on my poor wallet. For a poor boy from the Third World, this is a hellishly expensive place to live. Next time, I'll remember to save up for a bit beforehand. Of course, this trip was a bit sudden. And I was a jobless ex-Internet software entrepreneur for a while at the beginning of the year, so it's not surprising.

Come Friday I'll be heading off to the airport, hoping desperately that KLM will let me fly business class again. The odds are not good, but for me the glass is one tenth full. There I'll climb into a little metal tube along with a few hundred other sardines. A mere eighteen hours later I will be back in Johannesburg. I will have traveled seven hours and two seasons into the future. And to think there are people who say miracles don't happen.
What to do? What to do? OK, I'm bored at the office today. Finished off everything I had to do yesterday. Now I get to twiddle my thumbs for two days. Or maybe write the Great South African Novel. Nah, maybe next week.

I think I'll just make my first ever daytime post. I may have to do this in stealth mode though. The office has very strict Internet usage policy. Not that anyone actually heeds it, but I happened to get the computer with the screen that absolutely everyone can see. Try as I might, I could not rearrange the office to ensure any privacy. I can't count anymore the number of times I've turned around to discover someone reading my email over my shoulder. Rude, rude, rude. But at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that some of the things I write in email have definitely given some people a bit of a scare.

Random site of the day: Screenplays For You. It contains the screenplays for a couple of hundred movies. Fun stuff, if you like movies. I found the link on Donga, an online journal of poetry and other writings from South Africa.

Don't you just love the Internet? I decided I wanted to go to Cape Town for a long weekend in May. Ten minutes later I had a ticket and a confirmation number and my credit card had taken a nasty hit. This is a whole new level of impulse shopping. Gotta love it.

2002-04-21

Blame Canada. Blame Canada. For the cold wind from the frozen wastes of the North. For destroying my plans for a lazy Sunday afternoon drowsing in the sun by the lake. Damn and blast.

I did want to have a lazy weekend. This has been an exhausting week. Lots of work to get done before I leave for home and lots of compulsive writing into the early hours of the morning. Maybe I'll just stay in bed instead. Or maybe I'll just wander over to the coffee shop down the road and install myself in the armchair by the window with a book. No red wine I'm sad to say, but that can wait for next week when I'm back home and good red wine is affordable again.

Oh God, the wine. I have six bottles of wine that my boss left with me when returned to South Africa. He asked me to mail them to a friend of his in California because he had run out of time. He was looking slightly panicked about the number of things he had to get done before he left, so I agreed. Simple enough. Not! I tried to send them by mail. The US Post Office does not ship wine. I tried to send them with UPS. No luck there. I tried to send them with FedEx. They won't ship wine unless I'm a licensed wine distributor. What do I do next? I really don't want to abandon these poor bottles of wine to a sad life of lurking in alleys, selling themselves one sip at a time to make a quick buck and just waiting to ambush me next time I come to Chicago. I wonder if there's a Californian dope seller in the city who may have some space to spare in his truck on the return trip. Is there any legal way to do this? If I had the time, I wouldn't mind going to deliver them in person. If this were a movie I'd just knock off a convenient bank, steal a car and drive into the sunset, scattering dollar bills as the credits roll.

I found an interesting store yesterday - Dara Tribal Village. An odd name, yes, but an interesting place. It's full of art and craft from all over the world. I even saw some Zulu woven baskets in amongst the Afghani carvings, Thai buddhas and Guatemalan crucifixes. I walked in the door and the owner's dog made straight for me. He's a wonderful velvety chocolate brown Labrador retriever. He just ambled over with his rawhide toy in his mouth, flopped down at my feet and said "I'm beautiful. Love me." Completely irresistible.

It's run by a very pleasant woman called Rachel and her partner Abdul. He wasn't around, but Rachel and I chatted for a while. Life is hard for them at the moment, as it is for many in these uncertain times. For them it is compounded by the fact that Abdul is from Afghanistan and so they are directly affected by the war. We talked about war and the futility of violence as a way to achive peace. A faintly surreal conversation to have with someone you just met five minutes ago, but also a good affirming feeling.

I've just seen Alka's latest post. A beautiful piece about violence and compassion and the contradictions of life in South Africa. Alka and I share our home in Johannesburg (along with a variable number of cats) and reading today's post I realise how much I miss her presence. But I'll be home soon. Next week this time, I'll be asleep in my own bed. Well, more likely just lying there staring up at the ceiling because, even though it will be nearly midnight, my body will be convinced it's four in the afternoon. I'll probably be forced to go sit at my computer and blog some more.

2002-04-19

It seems I may be a peace blogger. Maybe it won't make the slightest difference and maybe it won't even be heard over the baying of the dogs of war, but I gladly add my voice to those who say that it is time to end the madness. For me, one life taken is one too many.

It's really way too easy to get into the Middle East/war debate and neglect other important things. So now, something completely different.

I am a frequent visitor to The Onion. There is something completely irresistible about their weird and wacky brand of humour. Over the years they have produced some truly inspired stories. My all time favourite is the story about desperate vegetarians declaring the cow a vegetable and then tucking in with gusto. It is particularly funny because I am a vegetarian. There's nothing like laughing out loud while looking in the mirror. Unfortunalely that story isn't in their archive, but try this one: Microsoft Patents Ones, Zeroes.

I was delighted to discover that Chicago is the home of The Onion. I was even more delighted to discover that they give the print version away for nothing every week. Wonderful stuff. I must pick one up tomorrow.

In the few weeks I've been here, I have become very fond of this city. When I arrived, I didn't think I would. Mostly because the weather was awful and the people all seemed so unfriendly. But living here and discovering it's oddities and quirks have made me look at Chicago in a different light. I like it here. I will be leaving in a week, but I think I'll definitely be back.

I'm also looking forward to going home. I can hardly wait. The thought of sleeping in my own bed again is almost too wonderful to contemplate. I'm trying not to be neurotic about whether or not the cats will recognise me. And of course my mom will want to feed me and I will have no objection at all. It will even be worth spending eighteen hours squashed into a tin can with my knees up around my ears.

2002-04-18

I have very mixed feelings about Mike's post yesterday. It takes me back years and years to places I had hoped to leave safely behind. The incident he refers to happened at a time when I was heading rapidly towards adolescence, just beginning to wake from the long dreamtime of childhood. Over the next few years the full horror of apartheid would slowly reveal itself to my no longer innocent gaze.

I don't know if I can possibly convey the betrayal and anger I felt when I began to realise that the fabric of my society was woven from lies, ignorance and hatred. That everything I had accepted as just the way things were were really part of some sick, twisted and brutal alternate reality. A reality dreamed up by people obsessed with power and privilege and built on the wreckage of other people's lives. A reality propped up by the Newspeak of state-controlled media and enforced by the police and army. A fantasy justified by distorted Biblical quotations and tortured logic.

It is often hard for people who did not live through apartheid, and especially on the wrong side of it, to comprehend the sweeping scale of the system. For instance, the "social engineering" that supported the whole edifice was astonishing. Generations of people grew up being taught (and mostly believing) that your legal status, social rank, intelligence and abilities were determined by such idiocies as the concentration of melanin in your skin and the kinkiness of your hair. More importantly, perhaps, they determined who you were allowed to love, where you were allowed to live, whether or not you were allowed to vote and whether or not you were eligible for human dignity. The utter stupidity of it is breathtaking.

Strangely, the things that come back most strongly are the little things. The things that chipped slowly away at your dignity and self-esteem day after day until either you broke and were defeated or you found some kind of inner strength to deal with it. The constant racial slurs made a good start. Then there were the shops, restaurants, theatres and so forth that you weren't allowed in. And the obsession with separate everything, from park benches to bus services to libraries. I recall the first time I was thrown out of a library for being the wrong colour. "But", I protested naively, "it's a library!" It was incomprehensible to me that anyone would want to restrict access to knowledge. I mean, surely the books didn't care who read them. It was only later that I realised that keeping people ignorant is one of the better ways of keeping them under control. This particular ploy was plainly visible in the underfunded, underequipped and understaffed schools.

Many people who failed to live up to the the Verwoerdian ideal of subservience left the country and many of those took up arms against the apartheid government. The war went on for a long time and terrible things were done by both sides. Mike notes just one of them. The government's anti-communist rhetoric won them support from Western governments while Eastern bloc countries supported the liberation movements. Back then the ANC was a terrorist organisation hell-bent on killing innocents and delivering South Africa into the arms of the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, every ANC fighter was a glorious hero of the struggle, prepared to sacrifice his life for my freedom.

The late seventies and the eighties were a time of horror. A time of dead children and assassinations and disappearances and states of emergency and bombs and necklacings. A time of things we don't like to be reminded of because they are so painful.

And yet I said mixed feelings. The other side is that it reminded me how different things are now. Things certainly have changed. I find myself living in a real democracy. I find my rights constitutionally protected. I own property nowhere near a township. I can't explain why things changed and probably shouldn't try. Somehow the people of South Africa turned their collective back on death and violence and said "Enough. No more. There has to be a better way." Hope somehow managed to get a foot in the door. A lot of people sat down and talked about talks for the longest time. Then they just talked for the longest time. We danced in the streets the day Nelson Mandela was released. We laughed and joked in the interminable queues at the polling stations. And suddenly there was the possibility of a future that wasn't all war and chaos. God, I love being South African.

Of course, like all good revolutionaries we like the thought of exporting our revolution. This may make us annoying at times. We tend to be convinced that there is a peaceful way to resolve any conflict. Some people say this is a simplistic and naive thing to believe. Maybe it is. And maybe not. The conflict in South Africa went on for centuries, and God alone knows how many people died in all the atrocities committed in all that time, yet we managed to find a way to make peace. We managed to do it democratically. We managed to do it without inflicting terrible vengeance on our opressors. We managed to do it without ethnic cleansing. We managed to do it without destroying our country. We managed to do it without destroying our economy*. We like to think that if a thing can be done once, it can usually be done again. What's so terrible about that?

*(There will be people who disagree with this last point, but they're the kind of people who believe that the sole measure of a country's economy is the relative value of its currency and so can't be taken seriously.)

2002-04-17

It seemed like such a mundane sort of day. It was clear that the most unusual thing that would happen in Chicago yesterday was that it would be hot enough for me to feel truly comfortable. And so it was.

But in Outer Blogovia, strange and wondrous things were happening. Mike Golby revealed that he had masterminded the capture of his arch-enemy, Gary Turner aka PorridgeBoy. The poor Scotsman has apparently been sent off to Guantanamo Bay, there to await the pleasure of the US Navy. Not only that, but Mike also confessed that it was he who had written the account of the Chukka Bar Incident. In fact, Mike gave up the pretense entirely and signed yesterday's post at Gary's site with his own name.

Shock! Horror! And jolly well done to Mike. But what does this all mean? How long has Gary really been Mike's alter-ego? Has Gary ever been anything more than a figment of the darker side of Mike's imagination. Is Mike coming apart at the seams even as I write? Is this all some paranoid fantasy happening in Gary's mind?

What's really going on? It seems most likely that they are two personalities sharing a single mind. Wielding Occam's Razor with surgical precision, we can see that a single mind could easily cope with the demands of their blogging. And we know there is nothing more strenuous that they would need to cope with. Unfortunately, they've started competing for control and things, as we have seen, have started to get nasty. We can begin to connect some the odder things that have happened recently. Other denizens of the beknighted island on which the Scotsman lives have reported being shocked and terrified when he suddenly slapped himself across the face, then grabbed up a newspaper and started whacking tables and walls all over the pub. New information, from sources in Cape Town, reveals that just seconds before, Mike had been bitten by a mosquito. Telling, isn't it?

What this means for the future of blogocracy as we know it, I don't know. I hope they manage to resolve their difficulties without too much more bloodshed. I wouldn't want this to escalate into a full-scale war complete with blogtanks being mobilised and server-side bombers destroying innocent blogs. I wonder if Gary can be recovered from Guantanamo before the evil Yankee bastards do too many vile and despicable things to him. I will even plead with Mike to forgive his heinous sins. Still, as a South African I must sing Mike's praises for defeating the agent of the former imperialist colonial power. He is now officially The People's Hero.

2002-04-15

Well, I said it would be a great weekend. And so it was. Even the anticipated chaos restricted itself to one almost funny episode of trying to get three people to the same spot at the same time. It involved a sudden disappearance of taxis from Chicago's streets just when I needed one, some distinctly unhelpful hotel staff, comic timing that Chaplin would have killed for and one dangerous moment when I almost gave up hope that the others would show up. But it all worked in the end. The perfect Hollywood ending.

Later, when the taxis reappeared from wherever they were hiding, I got to meet the taxi driver on whom every stereotyped American cab driver ever seen in a movie was modeled. He delivered a fascinating monologue which ranged over such subjects as his hatred for the media, how the media hated Bill Clinton because he was too clever for them and had used Monica Lewinsky to get him out of power and how they had conspired to replace him with a more pliable president. In short, the United States is ultimately ruled by a conspiracy of news editors. Government by the media. What's the term for that I wonder? Mediocracy, perhaps?

For the rest, there was good conversation, good food, good friends,good movies, dancing until ungodly hours and general all round fun. Oh, and the best weather yet. Which provided the perfect opportunity for a drowsy afternoon lying on the grass by the lakeshore watching people stroll/jog/ride/rollerblade along the path.

Browsing in a second-hand book store turned up a copy of The Bush Dyslexicon, an interesting dissection of quotes from George W Bush's statements and speeches. Most of them are hilarious, including one instance when he named his brother Jeb as "governor of the great state of Texas" and had to be reminded by the interviewer that he is in fact the governor of Florida. It had me laughing out loud until I came to a statement, made after a tour of Auschwitz, that was in such unbearable bad taste that I am still amazed that he wasn't instantly smitten by a bolt of lightning. Such bad taste that I can't bring myself to repeat it here. The book is simultaneously funny (mostly because I'm not an American) and chilling.

I saw Jason DeFillippo's post about his worryingly high score on the autism test and it got me thinking. I've taken the test before and, coincidentally I hope, got exactly the same score he did: 33. The control group score is 16.4. It worried me too at the time, but I've realised that the last thing I want is to stop being a "freakin loon", as Jason puts it.

I write software for a living. I love my work - I find it immensely creative and deeply satisfying. And I'm good at it too. Current research indicates that a lot of programmers, engineers, mathematicians and other geeky types show distinct signs of Asperger's syndrome or high-function autism. It seems to go with the territory. And we're in good company. Einstein, Newton and several other intellectual giants also displayed many of the symptoms. Not that I would equate myself with Einstein - sadly, there are some things that even shameless arrogance balks at.

2002-04-13

This is going to be a great weekend. I've stopped being depressed, which can only be a Good Thing. Spring has finally arrived, looking bit sheepish, but all is forgiven. And Farrel is visiting from DC. I haven't seen him in months and I'm really looking forward to it. Farrel is one of my favourite people in the world and it's terribly sad that he no longer lives in South Africa. It would have been very distressing for me to be in the US and not spend some time in the chaotic insanity which surrounds him like his own private atmosphere. As a small example, his flight from Washington was due to arrive at around seven, but for reasons unknown, it's been delayed by nearly an hour. Well, at least it gives me time to ramble on.

Bye-bye birdies
This was reported a few days ago, but I couldn't resist it. The Indian police are grounding their pigeon mail service, according to the Washington Times. The service, the last one of it's kind in the world, has apparently been rendered obsolete by radio and e-mail. Another great tradition destroyed by the relentless march of technology. Someone should have told them about RFC 1149. They could have run e-mail over p-mail and made everyone happy.

And finally
An interesting theory on why free software almost invariably has a sucky interface. I'm not sure I agree all the time, but I did like the bit about "The quality of an interface design is inversely proportional to the number of designers." Linked from Joel Spolsky, who has a lot to say about interface design. A lot of very useful things as it turns out. Read his book, especially if you're a programmer, but even if you aren't.

2002-04-12

Today was a glorious day in Chicago. It was warm, it was sunny, the lake was an almost tropical blue and even the wind was just a little breeze. I took my lunch to the park and had a little picnic with the squirrels and pigeons. There were daffodils in the grass, blooming their little hearts out. Birds were mating furiously everywhere, it was almost embarrassing. The trees are still bare, but if you listen carefully you can hear little popping sounds as buds burst into life. Days like today fill me with the urge to prostrate myself and give thanks for being here to experience them.

Of course, I could have been tactful and toned down the exuberance and not frightened any unsuspecting readers, but what the hell. I may not have much tact (at least not online, where tracking me down in order to lob artillery shells in my general direction is hard work), but then, I'm sure my sheer brilliance and shameless arrogance more than make up for such a trifling lack :)

2002-04-11

I haven't really gone silent, strangely or otherwise, as Alka complains. My weekday time seems to consist rather largely of work, work and more work. Oddly, this leaves me rather tired in the wee hours of morning, which is when I usually compose these works of genius. So I often do the unforgiveable and choose sleep over blogging. Hey give me a break, it's been less than two months since my first toddling steps into the wonderful world of blogs. The addiction is growing, but give it time. I have no doubt that someday soon I will find it impossible to go to sleep if I haven't produced a nice long rant. Until then, sleep will happen more often than not.

Still, it's nice to know she cares. :)

It was also great to get some encouraging words from Mike a day or two ago. Now there's someone who truly has the bug. Which is a Good Thing, because he often says sensible things, particularly about war and terror and Israel and Palestine. All subjects that I have strong opinions about. When I say sensible things, I of course mean things I don't disagree with too much :) Mike seems to get a lot of flak from people who are usually either uninformed or blinded by their emotions. I can't say I'd handle it half as well, so I'll let him do the talking for now. I'll just lurk quietly in the background and work on the plan to have South Africans take over the world for the sake of sanity.

And now for something completely different.

Maybe it's because spring is finally, grudgingly showing signs of arriving and the, er, sap is beginning to rise, but I finally feel comfortable here. Right now I feel like I could even live here. No, I don't want to, but I could. Last week all I wanted was to go home, but I'm enjoying it now. I've even developed the rudiments of a daily routine. My hotel room faces north (and overlooks the McDonalds across the road, but even that can't bother me now) so it doesn't get light early and I always wake up too late. No it has nothing to do with composing epistles at 1 in the morning. I've stopped even trying to eat beakfast at the hotel. It's much easier and tastier to grab a latte and a croissant at Starbucks and eat at my desk. And I've found some decent cheap lunch spots. And in between all this eating, I've even been enjoying work.

I have noticed that I've been eating far more than usual. I was a bit worried at first that it was some kind of depressive binge, but it hasn't gone away, so it must be something else. And I don't seem to be expanding rapidly either, so it probably has something to do with having to keep the body temperature above freezing while wandering about outside. Which I do a lot.

It really doesn't hurt that Chicago is filled with beautiful buildings. At least it is downtown. I haven't ventured too far into suburbia, so I'm not sure what horrors may lurk out there. Interesting and innovative architecture somehow seems to have become a tradition here. Definitely one to be encouraged in other places. Especially in Johannesburg, where it seems that almost every building has to be neo-something-old before people will pay money for it and most of the rest are rectangular prisms that try to be Modern but miss the point and turn out boring instead. The Chicagoan fascination with beautiful buildings seems to owe a lot to having to rebuild a large part of the city after a devastating fire back in the 19th century. Hmm, I wonder ...

2002-04-09

Dolphins underwater are the essence of motion. Graceful beyond description. Their bodies are confined, but their minds I'm sure are not. It's not hard to imagine amusement when they ignore their handlers and interrupt the performance with some game not on the schedule for the day.

The Shedd Aquarium is huge. A day easily spent. And well spent too. The centrepiece is a reconstruction of a coral reef. Of course there are the dolphins and the beluga whales. Belugas are wonderful. Dolphins are beautiful, but they always come across as the adolescents of the cetacean world. Belugas are much more elegant and stately. It's hard to imagine a beluga rubbing it's genitals against the side of the pool, as one bored dolphin was doing. This incident led to a particularly tense moment for one visiting family, until the mother came up with the "scratching an itch" explanation. Perfectly true, yet euphemistic enough not to warp a young mind into attempting any "unnatural activities".

My favourite was the Amazon exhibit, which may seem like an odd choice for an aquarium, but the river floods a mind-blowingly huge area every year to a depth of up to 10m. More like a vast tree-covered lake than a forest. Piranhas are strangely placid fish. Their reputation is not all that well deserved it seems. The anaconda, having eaten sometime in the last fortnight, hung motionless in the water, all surreal curves and spots. In the dry season there are strange air-breathing fish that live in the remaining pools.

The aquarium was also a good spot to observe several specimens of americanus vulgaris. And fascinating they were too, in all their pallid, pasty and slightly damp and smelly glory. From the way their young interacted with the displays, one might be tempted to attribute some slight capacity for learning to them, but sadly, it was soon overcome by the species' endless obsession with blinking lights and buttons that light up when you push them. They came in endless streams to ritually circle the coral reef. They gasped in unison when the dolphins demonstrated how they had managed to train a few select individuals to bring them food when they made simple gestures like leaping out of the water or waving their tails in the air. I'm coming very close to believing that strange heresy: these odd creatures may be our closest living relatives, even closer than bonobos and chimpanzees.

A thoroughly surreal discovery this weekend was Chicago's Indian neighbourhood. Streets lined with Indian restaurants, shops selling odd vegetables and basmati rice, the air filled with spicy smells and Bollywood's best blaring from speakers, even the saccharine strains of The Movie that Must Not be Named. The bus was filled with people chattering away in Hindi. I half expected to see traffic carefully avoiding a cow in the middle of the road.

I wandered into the Madras Palace, a thoroughly vegetarian restaurant, for dinner, which was full of people chattering away in Tamil. They were serving their delicious weekend special eat-as-much-as-you-can buffet, which was a Good Thing, because I was starving. Last week was not a good one for food. I was running out of cash and only got a new infusion at the end of the week.

I also managed to contact Gregor last week. I haven't seen him in a very long time. He's still in Seattle, working for You Know Who. I think he's finally got the job he's always wanted, working on the Common Language Runtime for .NET. He does report that Seattle is not that much fun. But then, I never expected it to be. How much fun can anyone have in a city where it rains that much? If I'm lucky he'll be visiting Chicago before I leave.

Our man in Washington and our other man in Washington are coming to visit this weekend. I am greatly looking forward to seeing them. It's going to be wonderful to have a real conversation again, with real people. I hope I remember how to do that. My few remaining social skills may have atrophied hopelessly.

2002-04-04

I've been told, fairly pointedly, that I don't post often enough. You know who you are. So today I shall attempt the "stream of consciousness" blog. Who knows where that will lead us. I promise I will do some editing so you aren't forced to venture too far into the twisted recesses of what passes for my mind. If you like that sort of thing, go watch Being John Malkovich again.

Rant of the day. Just as I finished moaning about how this lack of sunshine was making me depressed, it snows. It was bad enough when it snowed on Monday. At least I could pretend that was just some kind of sick joke. But today?! This is beyond sick. This is the kind of weather that inspires fantasies of burning a nice big building and warming my poor frozen body in front of it.

There was a fire in a building across from the office on Monday. I disclaim any responsibility for that one, but it did get me thinking. Seems to have been a freak accident involving a tank of gas in a jeweller's workshop. Rumours involving a small gold ring and someone who had read about taking the Ring to the Fire one time too many are apparently not true. Needless to say, someone is suing the poor bastard whose business now lies in smoking ruins. Or maybe she's suing the fire department for not rescuing her fast enough.

A funny thing happened on the way to work this morning. God, I've wanted to say that forever. Actually, it was a little bit freaky. I took the subway in to the office because I was late. Well, later than usual anyway. I got on the train and we went just far enough to probably be under the river when the train came to a rather sudden halt. After some time, I managed to disentangle myself from my bag and the rather large person who had been standing across from me. Then the lights went out. Ever been in a train stopped in a tunnel under a river and have the lights go out? Ever wondered exactly what will inspire complete claustrophobia?

Before I could rip the walls apart with my bare hands, some of the lights came back on and The Voice said "This train is experiencing equipment problems. The operator is currently off the train working to correct the problem." Not terribly inspiring. Then silence. There was a brief flurry of activity when the train driver climbed into our carriage from outside, fiddled furiously with something and then rushed out again. We started moving again a few minutes after that, although it felt like a lot longer. I still don't know what was wrong. I was just very, very relieved.

The Voice is the disembodied entity that makes announcements on the CTA trains. Kind of like the London "Mind the Gap" voice, but male. One of the newspapers here has a regular column dedicated to people writing in with their theory about who he is, what he looks like, etc. Very entertaining.

2002-04-01

I've been feeling quite down this week. Maybe that came through in my other posts. Probably the result of sunshine deprivation. The sun came out on Wednesday and that was pretty much it until this morning. Then it clouded over and rained.

On Friday I realised that there was nothing I could do except prescribe a course of retail therapy. My first session was a dismal failure. I was tempted by the Virgin megastore, but when I discovered that the ultra-cheap sale CDs cost $9, I decided that that was not the most useful idea. There was also the odd fact that the selection wasn't nearly as good as I would have expected. Certainly nowhere near the Virgin store in London, or even CD Wherehouse for that matter. OK, I'm not sure about CD Wherehouse, but only just.

Yesterday I wandered into the Sony consumer electronics store. I didn't buy anything there either, but I knew that was unlikely before I went in. All I wanted to do was look at all the new toys. There were plenty of those, including the biggest TV set I have ever seen and the smallest digital camcorder. Also cute little robot dogs. I'm not sure why anyone would want one - isn't the whole point of dogs the fact they are warm and fuzzy - but they were very cute. I will admit to a certain stirring of desire when I saw the CD Walkman that not only plays CDRs but also plays MP3 CDRs. But not enough to spend a hundred and fifty bucks on it.

The retail therapy finally worked out today though. I went to the big Borders bookstore, which is near the hotel. There's a small one near the office but its not half as entertaining. Imagine Exclusive Books at Hyde Park. Got it? Right, now imagine four floors of it. I spent most of the day there being very happy. I didn't even hurt the credit card that badly. But it was great. I would think of a book I had wanted to read, go look it up on the book search kiosk and, almost every time, it would tell me where in the store I could find it. Of course, I couldn't buy too many of them, but I could attempt a speed reading of several. To take one example, it was an absolute joy to finally get to look through Christopher Alexander's books on patterns in architecture, which inspired the design patterns movement in software.

The week at work was mostly good. I wrote tons of code and discovered new and exciting ways to make last week's code better. There was even something that could pass for conversation with an American. Hey, maybe they are human.

I also discovered Internet radio. Or rediscovered it, rather. The Internet connection at the office is scarily fast. More than enough to deliver a sustained 100 Kb a second. That's just to me and I'm reasonably sure other people at the office also get to use it. That is truly mindblowing (at least to a poor boy from the Third World). It also makes listening to streaming audio pleasant, as opposed to the excruciation of attempting it over a connection that forces you to choose between continuity and quality.