keep pushing and the momentum will come

This week gave me a lot of reason to pause and reflect on what crosses in and out of The Eyrea, both in the physical and the on-line world. Something that's always present got significantly stronger: the amount of ideas and content that is part of resistance culture, as opposed to sanctioned culture.

Now, I'm no French cultural studies professor, so for the purposes of this blog entry I'm going to define those two terms, in the Humpty-Dumpty-it-means-that-because-I-said-so way.

Sanctioned culture is composed of cultural interactions and artifacts which get produced and/or explicitly distributed by a large, powerful entity. Usually that's either a government or a big corporation.

Resistance culture is also composed of cultural interactions and artifacts, but gets little to no explicit support by large, powerful entities. Governments, big corporations, or the like may be tangentially involved — an artifact is created with a mass-produced camera, say, or distributed via an e-mail account Google or Microsoft host — but they don't sanction it. Beyond a cursory, automated check to ensure it doesn't break any of their usage rules, they may not be aware it exists at all.

This is an interesting era, because for a very long time (how long? I date it back to the advent of the photocopier, but other people choose their own milestones), resistance culture has been becoming easier and easier to produce and distribute. It's got to the point where sanctioned culture will use resistance culture's methods in an attempt to give itself back some street cred; at the same time, some resistance cultural artifacts are looking awfully polished — like something we're used to seeing from sanctioned culture. One example of the former are the various flash mobs for the sake of advertising. One example of the latter is Nina Paley's wonderful animated feature film, Sita Sings the Blues.

So what's special about this week? This week alone:
  • Larry Kollar released Pickups and Pestilence, the sequel to his novel White Pickups
  • Marc Nash posted an hour-long video for his Friday Flash — basically a poetry reading you could enjoy in the comfort of your own home, without having to head out to that café that doesn't have any signage.
  • It was Mother's Day here in Canada and elsewhere, and my mum asked me to design and make her a necklace or bracelet instead of just buying something. At brunch today, we talked about stuff we were making and about the upcoming performance of my stepfather's first play.
All right, community theatre is as old as theatre itself, and Larry's not the first person to self-publish a novel, and Marc isn't the first person to upload a video to YouTube. I'm certainly not the first person to grab some pliers and head pins and stone beads and make a necklace.

All the same, think about it: for most if not all of the people on that list (including me), if marketers were to look at our demographic profile, they would come to the conclusion that we should be consumers, not makers. Certainly we shouldn't be publishing novels or plays. Our family just successfully celebrated that most Hallmark of holidays without directly buying a damn thing for it — even the card I gave my mum was an art card I picked up a couple of years ago... somewhere, and while it is mass produced it's not widely available either.

I don't have a very bohemian family — we tend to have jobs in IT or accounting. I grew up in the 'burbs, and most of my close relatives still live there. According to those who sanction sanctioned culture, there shouldn't be a single thing I own that can't be found in a shopping mall, bar maybe some tchotchkes picked up during an overseas holiday.

Resistance culture is supposed to require resistance. It's not supposed to be this easy to find and do. And certainly before the web took off, it wasn't.

The web's going to be twenty years old in 2015, so again, maybe this shouldn't be this big a deal still. But consider:
  • Marc's in the UK, and I could watch his video. I cannot watch all  videos uploaded in the UK by sanctioned-culture entities like the BBC. If they deem it for international consumption, I can view it, but not if it's domestic-only. In practice this means I can watch a lot of news clips, but next to no drama or comedy. See that? A one-man production has less publicity, but greater reach than content that took dozens of cast and crew members to produce. We all know by now that when a resistance-culture video goes viral it gets more publicity than the sanctioned content.
So the next time someone complains to you that the world watches cat videos instead of supporting the latest Shakespeare adaptation, remind them the cat videos are easier to obtain. Also remind them there are hour-long poetry readings available.

Now, don't get me wrong, there's still a lot of sanctioned culture I quite like. I just finished re-watching my DVD of The Avengers before starting to write this post. But it just seems, year over year, there's less and less to entice me back anymore, and even the stuff that was enticing is getting harder and harder to find. I'd love to see that film Hysteria that Maggie Gyllenhaal starred in, but it only played at two cinemas in my city (and Toronto loves movies — there's a reason they have a film festival here). That's a sanctioned-culture film that got great reviews, but good luck getting to experience it.

There's so many more examples to discuss, but this is an overly long post already. Long story short: resistance culture is blooming in landscapes those heavily involved in sanctioned culture never thought it could even sprout in. Traditionally that means an upset is coming. This time... I think this time is going to play out differently. But maybe more on that in a future post.

Postscript: if you are into any facet of resistance culture and have not yet read Lipstick Traces, you really, really should. The historical dot-connecting makes it a very provocative read.

the penthouse incident

I am six and my friend Valerie is six, and we are at her house because her mum runs her hairdressing salon in the basement, and my mum is getting a perm. We were told to play quietly, and so we are, but not in the spirit our mothers meant.

Valerie has two older brothers. One is in his twenties and has already moved out of the house, but the other is in his late teens and in college, and still lives at home. He keeps his bedroom door locked so that Valerie can't get in and "break anything." Valerie resents this on principle, because she is careful with things. Besides, she's six already.

 Thanks to trying to keep up with her brothers, Valerie is mature for her age. I am the eldest in my family and just act like a six-year-old, but I have acquired one skill she has not yet — I can read well enough to read stuff for grown-ups. At my house that means National Geographic, the Toronto Star, and Canadian Living. At Valerie's house it means that as well... except in her brother's room. And that is why we're being very, very quiet.

How well is "well enough to read stuff for grown-ups"? In Grade 1 (the same year as The Penthouse Incident), I was tested to be reading at a Grade 6 level. This is not unusual for children whose parents read habitually. Which, even when I was in teacher's college, made me question the whole "reading grade level" concept.

More importantly for this particular caper, I knew how to read silently, without having to say the words out loud. The plan was for me to read what Valerie wanted deciphered, and then I could repeat it when we were somewhere we were actually allowed to be.

Valerie takes the spare key to her brother's bedroom from its hiding place in the linen closet. She opens the door and we creep in. She locks the door behind us so that it looks like no-one's there.

First she shows me the model frame house her brother built for class. It's beautifully precise, and I think it would be a great start to a doll's house. Then we tiptoe back to the front of the room to complete the main part of our mission: her brother's porn magazines are there, and Valerie wants to know what they say because no-one will ever tell her. That's why she needs me.

We start by giggling (and shushing each other) over some of the pictures. We know what naked females look like. We are female. The magazine only shows naked grown-up women, of course, but we've both been in enough public swimming pool changerooms for that to be no big deal.

There is an extended photo essay of two women posing in a shallow pool of multicoloured poster paint (which they are completely covered in). Valerie points out one photo where one woman is trying to lick the other woman's bum. 

"Ewwwwww!" we say.

"What if she slipped?" I say. We both know what poster paint tastes like from art class. Getting a mouthful would be disgusting.

"That's going to take a long time to wash off," says Valerie.

So yeah, sorry to disappoint the morality brigade, but looking at photos of naked women when you're too young to understand what a turn-on is just doesn't seem to be a life-scarring event. Maybe if we'd seen more explicit stuff, but this was back when skin mags had to at least pretend to be artistic or risk getting censored.

Now, I'm not saying it's all right for little kids to look at porn. I'm just saying we shouldn't freak out if by chance they do see some — at least if it's just nude photos. The "not freaking out" part is important. Save that for when you find the grown-up who didn't take enough care... or didn't account for six-year-olds finding spare keys.

We hear footsteps downstairs, so Valerie quickly flips to an article for me to read. It's an entire page, two columns, with no pictures breaking up the text, and after a couple of paragraphs I'm bored and she's impatient with waiting. By now I'm holding the magazine, so I flip through it for something shorter and find a comic strip. Jackpot. I love comics.

So I read. And I read. And I flip back to the beginning because I'm sure I must have skipped a part, but I haven't. This lady who sort of looks like Wonder Woman gets into a cab, and the cabbie is driving along, and suddenly in the next frame she's taken all her clothes off and is attacking the cabbie, who looks terrified and then happy and then angry in turns.

"What does it say?" hisses Valerie.

I flip the pages back and forth. "It doesn't make any sense," I say.

It still doesn't.

i am my own librarian

I got into a brief but very interesting Twitter conversation with John Wiswell and Helen Howell the other night. John started it by mentioning the conflict of liking a specific book which may belong to a genre one generally dislikes (here's what he actually tweeted). It got me thinking though: hence this blog post.

Underneath the kitchen sink in my small apartment is a blue plastic recycling bin that is, by some counts, not a recycling bin at all. It's a stackable box I picked up for about $5 in the IKEA children's section. I just got it because I needed a recycling bin that fit under my sink, and it's the right colour and shape so visitors can tell what it's for.

Has this particular type of bin ever been marketed for recycling in small apartments? No.

Has this particular type of bin ever been advertised as being something adults may find useful even if they don't have any children? No.

But it's my recycling bin now, and it's been that for fifteen years. It works great.

That's okay at IKEA, because they even hack their own stuff, never mind having customers do their own hacks. But then there's the time that I bought a large-faced, longer-strapped Swatch watch. As a tall, big woman, it made sense to buy a watch more in proportion, with, well, me.

After I'd paid, the saleslady said, "Um, you do realise that's a man's watch, right?"

"It's mine now," I said, and that was that. I wore that watch for ten years, and the saleslady was the very last person ever to comment on its supposedly inherent masculinity.

And so it goes for a lot of things. On the director's commentary of the Star Trek DVD, J.J. Abrams said he included the Kirk birth scene at the beginning to draw women into the story, yet female Trek fans are famous as their own SF subculture. Why attempt to "draw" women to something they're already predisposed to like? Oh right, because marketers say that women don't like action films or SF films on their own — they have to be dragged to them by their boyfriends/husbands.

Robert J. Sawyer wrote a brilliant trilogy about a parallel universe where Neanderthals are the surviving hominid species, and had at its heart a wonderful romance plot. Audrey Niffenegger wrote a brilliant time travel novel about a married couple. Somehow, at least in the bookshops I've been to in person and on-line, Sawyer's work gets put in Science Fiction & Fantasy, while Niffenegger's is put in Romance. Yet they're both science fiction works that effectively use a romance between two major characters to move the plot. Having read both the entire Hominids trilogy and the Niffenegger novel, and having loved both about equally, all I can think is that it comes down to marketing. I suppose one could argue that the initiating action on Sawyer's work is from an invention, whereas the initiating action in Niffenegger's is a biological reaction, but that's a bit of hair-splitting. Substitute in The Chrysalids for the Hominids trilogy if it really bothers you.

The point is, it seems we are expected to swallow the marketing, the spin on something, as much as the something that the marketing is supposed to persuade us to buy. And it gets ugly, very quickly. "That toy's for girls." "Those are men's socks." "Harry Potter is for kids, not adults who read real literature." "Americans like that much sugar in their soda."

It's bizarre, because if the product was pushed ahead of the demographic, they might sell more of the things. I remember that my best friend in high school wanted to have a McDonald's birthday party for her eighteenth birthday as a sort of "farewell to childhood" gag event. All of her friends were into it, and she successfully organised the event with the local McDonald's — until we showed up for the party. The restaurant manager was furious with us, even when we offered to forego some of the extra service usually offered because the attendees were typically small children. How dare we buy something outside of our demographic?

If we can legally buy it, what the hell would anyone care if they're selling it? They're still making money from us.

As consumers, we're warned that businesses will try to make money from us any way they can. The demographic segmentation of products and services — including products and services which are nominally interchangeable before the marketing labels get slapped on them — makes me suspect otherwise.

I don't think there's an actual conspiracy going on. I just think certain people don't like having their apple carts upset by people making their own choices.

head hopping

"Head hopping" is moving from a focused third-person narration with one character's point of view to a focused third-person narration with a different character's point of view. It's supposed to be one of those Bad Things that automatically make a text Bad Writing. It's usually cited in the same breath as "always use 'said'", right after "show, don't tell". And, like a lot of other writing rules, it gets broken in popular, canonical books all the time.

Virginia Woolf head-hopped in both To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. Philip K. Dick used it to brilliant effect in several books, including (my favourite example of all time) Radio Free Albemuth, where not only does he hop between different heads, but he breaks point of view mid-sentence and then picks up the same sentence from the point of view of a different character. Stephen King even head-hops for a few sentences at a time in Hearts in Atlantis before switching back to the main narrator's point of view.

So what's with the Universal Writing Rule of "No Head Hopping"? I think it's similar to the what John Wiswell found when he did an analysis of prologues in popular books. Many agents and publishing industry types insist that including a prologue means an instant rejection because "everyone hates reading them," yet on the list of thirty-six books in John's blog post there are several nominees for major awards.

If head-hopping is done well, it's considered structural experimentation by a brilliant writer. If it's not done well, it's considered a stupid newbie mistake, which somehow elects it to be graven in stone somewhere in a list of Things Writers Shouldn't Do.

I would respectfully suggest there should be another stone engraved with Things Critics Shouldn't Do, and that one of the items listed near the very top should be "Don't Confuse the Device with the Execution." Just because it's difficult doesn't mean it should be banned.

writing thoughts: sleep

I try to keep a civil tongue about most writing advice I disagree with. That is, I try not to say anything about it at all. There's one piece of advice I've decided to speak up about, though, and that's because it is possibly hazardous to your health.

That's the one about getting up one or two hours earlier than you usually do to write.

Now, if you usually clock eight or nine hours of sleep a day, enjoy regular relaxing evenings filled with family time and light chores (do the dishes, take out the garbage), then getting up an hour, or even a couple of hours early on weekdays is probably fine. I say "probably" because I'm only speaking from experience, not as a medical expert.

However, if you are not someone who usually gets that much sleep and/or has low-stress evenings, you might want to do a web search on the effects of chronic sleep deprivation first.

Sleep deprivation became a special interest of mine after I spent most of my twenties living on between three and five hours of sleep a night. Maybe I'd get six or seven on a random weekend night, but usually not. If you want to compare symptoms with that list of articles I linked to, I got to the point where:
  •  My craving for carbohydrates was insatiable — I'd eat a (large) lunch and if someone else was having a sandwich or a cake or something, I'd sit there and stare at them eating it, even if I was so full my stomach hurt.
  • I had to write down everything, because my memory was completely shot. Not only could I not remember what I needed to get at the grocery store, I'd get halfway down the street and not be able to remember which shop I was supposed to be going to. I had a calendar-style pocket diary in which I wrote down everything. Otherwise, I simply couldn't cope.
  • I was cold all the time.
  • My immune system worked at a sort of "bare minimum" level  — I always had minor infections that would get better or worse, but never go away entirely.
  • I had a tendency to repeat myself a lot, mostly because I couldn't keep good track of what I was saying.
  • Towards the end of the eight-year period I was going through this, I had a lot of visual and auditory hallucinations. At one point I was afraid to vacuum the lower-level stairwell in my apartment because of the "ghosts".
There's more, but you get the idea. At the time, even though I was always complaining about lack of sleep, people put it down to job stress, having too much of an imagination (!), and "aging". The symptoms started interfering with my life when I was about twenty-four, and someone overhearing me telling a friend about it interrupted and said, "Guess you're getting older, eh?". I was twenty-four.

And writing? It didn't happen. I still got ideas in my head, still imagined scenes, but they very rarely made it to paper. When they did, they never made any sense, and unfortunately not in the "oooh, that's so imagistic and surreal" way. Truth be told, I couldn't read very well at the time either — I had to read an entire chapter of a book at once, or else I couldn't remember where I was in the story at all.

I finally got control over my sleeping and living habits when I was a few months shy of turning thirty. That was twelve years ago, and there is still long-term health damage. I joke that my circadian rhythm runs like an experimental jazz piece. Mostly I put myself to bed and wake myself up by the clock. Mostly it works.

It doesn't take eight years for things to get bad. After just a few weeks of too little sleep (days if no sleep at all), you won't be able to write, because you won't be able to think.

Getting up early is one way to find some writing time, but there are other ways. If getting up early works for you, great, but please think twice before trumpeting to the world how wonderful it is. I've read precisely one article that admitted the "get up early" advice assumed you were already getting enough sleep.

The point is to write more and live better, not write less and live worse.

Take care of yourselves.

YOU MUST LEARN

The cliché is that those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it. There's another cliché, though, the one about history being written by the victors. In this case it's not so much the victors as the advertisers, though, and historical accuracy is not in their selfish best interests.

I've seen lists like these in some of the computing magazines etc., and they always have one or two things wrong with them. First of all, they're often inaccurate, and rush too quickly to get to the star names. It's like they're worried their readers will stop reading if they learn something new.

Second of all, they're often confused. They'll start way early in the timeline, or way late, like a student who didn't exactly understand what their own thesis statement was.

This is my timeline for the development of personal computing. Don't let your eyes glaze over, 'cos unless you're a computer science major (or act like one), you may learn some surprising things. Besides, if you're reading this blog, it means you're taking a break from on-line games or porn or your friends' status updates or whatever else you usually look at.
  • The rough sketch for what we now call the personal computer (or tablet, or smartphone, or whatever) was published in July 1945 by someone called Vannevar Bush. He wrote about it in an essay called "As We May Think" in The Atlantic Monthly, and it's still available on-line today. It's as good and accessible a read as anything that magazine publishes now. Bush gives a series of small examples, which, while interesting, leave you thinking, "okay, so....?" until he puts them all together and delivers the knockout punch at the end.
  • That July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly was read by, amongst other people, a man named Douglas Engelbart. Once he finished serving in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, he went home to the US and started working on creating some of the things Bush presented in his essay.
  • Engelbart invented the mouse in 1963. Bill English carved the first prototype out of a block of wood. Engelbart patented the mouse in 1970, but the patent papers were filed in 1967.
  • 1968: The Mother of All Demos. Engelbart demonstrates using the mouse, display editing, copying & pasting text, hypertext (links), and multiple windows. The whole thing is video conferenced, so that those who want to see the demo but can't attend in person can watch on closed-circuit TV.
Please pause and re-read that last entry. All of that stuff was working well enough to demonstrate live in 1968.

Oh yeah: in 1969 Engelbart (again!) helped start ARPAnet, which eventually became what we now call the Internet. I don't think it's a big exaggeration to say that he's shaped to a very large extent everything the world thinks of as "normal" in a human-computer experience, and yet most people haven't heard of him. Luckily he seems to be a force for good.

And that is where I'm going to end my timeline, because from where I'm sitting, everything that comes afterwards is a long, slow, painful crawl to commercial acceptance from that 1968 demo. If you look around Doug Engelbart's site thoroughly, you'll see that his overarching aim has been to augment human intelligence. That we were stuck with the 1968 paradigm for so long (albeit with prettier video interfaces) is a tad worrying.

Where is computing going now? On the one hand I'm glad that innovations like the gesture-based commands in the Wii and Kinect systems made it to market, because I think a thinking environment that encourages us to use all of our bodies instead of being hunched over a desktop is a good thing. On the other hand, it's a tad worrying that these are coming out of the gaming world, which means they might be a hard sell in the business realm. After all, back in the 80s PCs themselves sometimes had to be purchased at large corporations as "word processors" or "adding machines" to avoid refusals from the accounting department.

Notice I made it this far without mentioning Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (or even Steve Wozniak). Notice how young Gates and Jobs were when all this was happening. Bush's essay was published ten years before either of them were born. I don't mean that Gates and Jobs haven't contributed; I just mean that there was already a lot in place by the time they started working on things.

The advertisers tell us that computing is changing very quickly, and that we have to run to keep up. Given that the idea came in 1945, was realised by 1968, and then didn't catch on until the 1980s, I'm not so sure.

there's worse things than dead air

I heard the news this morning that CKLN is off the air — again. As I write this, the radio station's web site says that there will be a statement Monday, and that the fight with the CRTC (and within CKLN itself, really) isn't over yet.

I'm glad there are people out there fighting the good fight, but I'm worried that there are not enough people seeing the big picture. This is not the first time this sort of conflict has happened, and not just at Ryerson University, CKLN's physical home and the sponsor that makes them "campus/community radio".

In 1992-93, I finished up two degrees at the University of Western Ontario while working as a volunteer at CHRW, their campus/community radio station*. Western was always a weird fit with the campus/community radio paradigm. The university is notoriously conservative and known for not interacting with the city it is situated in. It sits on the top of its hill, supposedly once a golf course, with a big black metal fence around most of the main campus. The fence is supposed to keep would-be rapists out, but as a day-to-day architectural feature, it felt more like it was keeping the public out when they wanted in and the students in when they wanted to explore the larger community.

It was almost twenty years ago and would take a long time to explain, so I'm not going to go into all the details here, but it happened like this at CHRW: a group of station volunteers felt that the then-new station management was barely following the letter of the station's Promise of Performance (the "contract" of content the station must fulfill to remain on air), and certainly not the spirit of it. Management said that as volunteers, we had no say in the matter and should shut up and follow orders. Volunteers spoke out against changes at meetings. Management retaliated by summarily removing volunteers from shows, and by threatening volunteers with suspensions or expulsions if they continued to speak up. There were several incidents of a volunteer showing up to work their shift, only to discover that the timeslot had been given to a completely different show without their prior knowledge. Typically the new announcer didn't even know the shift hadn't been designated vacant.

Then management told the concerned volunteers that they wouldn't speak to us unless we had a group name, so some people made one up for the purposes of communicating. But when we went to the university ombudsperson and the CRTC to follow due process, they said they couldn't help us because the channels we were using were for individual students and citizens, respectively, and since we were now an "official" group we didn't have the right to follow those processes.

It ended with the station finally banning everyone they could name from the station for life, including me. It was supposed to be in retaliation for a peaceful demonstration that had been held to protest the management changes. I never attended or took part in planning the demonstration. I wasn't even in the city of London, Ontario when it happened — I was working a five-week teaching contract in Toronto.

The part that still hurts, besides the "guilt by association" summary dismissal, is that there was at least one time where station management argued that I shouldn't be allowed to attend the volunteer meetings and ask questions because I wasn't a volunteer. This despite the fact that I had paid my dues, filled out the paperwork,  was listed on the volunteer roster, and had my station ID badge photo taken by the station manager himself. But I was the (then) girlfriend of an announcer with a long-running show, and somehow that meant that I wasn't a person in my own right in the sphere of station politics. That attitude was present and obvious long before the dispute started, even amongst people who prided themselves on being left-wing and feminist. Maybe that explains why I decided to fight management.

Afterwards, a lot of the people who had been fired from their volunteer positions over the dispute discussed alternative ways they could reach their audiences, often joking wryly about the need for an alternative to a supposedly alternative radio station. Using very low-wattage transmitters, the kind that real estate agents use to broadcast information about houses as you drive or walk by them, was considered, but ultimately not tried because of practical considerations. Internet radio was experimented with a bit (yes Virginia, even in the mid-90s there was internet radio — it was just a much bigger pain to create, transmit, and listen to). Ultimately most of the "concerned volunteers" went on to other community-based projects where their skills could be put to good use. For the first few years after the firings, there were several ironic incidents where a new volunteer from CHRW would call a former volunteer about a project they were working on and request an interview, only to be told that the former volunteer could not accept in good conscience because of the lifetime ban.

We also discussed going back on air after enough time had elapsed for forgetting (we didn't expect forgiveness), but there didn't seem to be any point.

The dispute was given some coverage on CBC radio. At the time we were disappointed that coverage of the CHRW situation was being truncated, but the sad thing was we lost coverage because there were other, similar disputes happening at other campus/community stations throughout Canada. From where I'm sitting, CKLN's latest news is another episode in an ongoing saga.

There are two things about it I find particularly troublesome:

  1. Many of the people with power at campus/community stations — the power to take on and fire volunteers, the power to set content policy — don't know the CRTC regulations about such stations, or don't understand why those regulations are in place. There seems to be this idea that campus/community stations should be just like commercial radio, except "belonging to the students", who are encouraged to think of them as a public-broadcast version of last.fm (Don't get me wrong — I love last.fm. But it ain't campus/community radio, and it's not supposed to be.)
  2. This has been going on for over twenty years (CHRW was hardly the first), but it only seems to make the news when a station is threatened with being reprimanded for CRTC infractions. I've been told that's because the mainstream media sees campus/community stations as competition. If so, they're being beyond ridiculous. Campus/community radio stations don't have the broadcasting wattage, the resources, or the advertising enticements of commercial radio by design.
There's more to consider, like accessibility, community representation, and other considerations, but this post is going long. I'll finish by noting one thing: see that black-and-white logo on CHRW's web site, up at the top of the home page? I was surprised to see that they were still using it — it came in around 1991. The original, which used a sans serif font, was created by a volunteer who did graphics for television. But he became one of the concerned volunteers, so the Times New Roman version you can still see on the station web site was created. That way management could claim that they had made the logo themselves, and not accepted it from a volunteer they then summarily dismissed.

* And no, I never had my own show, although I did guest sometimes when an announcer couldn't make their shift because of vacation or illness. I actually volunteered to learn how to work a mixing board and other radio engineering tasks — but what happened with that is a blog post for another day.

amazons are made, not born

I am, according to my doctor, exactly 175cm tall. That's almost-but-not-quite five feet nine in Imperial measure; the actual fraction is five feet, eight-and-nine-tenths inches or something awkward like that. Since the average Canadian woman is only five feet four, that makes me stick out as a tall woman, at least in this country.

Being a woman, I talk about personal safety with my friends from time to time. It's just the usual stuff that gets distributed in those "safety tips" e-mails that float around the internet — how to carry your purse so that a mugger will decide you're not a good target, how to keep your cell phone handy so that you can call for help quickly but not get noticed by a cell phone thief, and so on. While we're on the topic, we might discuss toxic relationships, domestic violence, what to do if someone tries to assault us. Not something to dwell on and get paranoid or hateful about, but information needs to be shared, right?

It never fails, though: there's always a more petite friend who will turn to me and say, "You're lucky. You're tall, so you can protect yourself better."

This blog post is about why that is complete and utter nonsense.

Yes, I'm fully aware that many sources (like this one) will mention that women can be at risk because of their smaller size (they should say "on average", but this is rarely included). But consider: being tall just means that I'm tall. It doesn't turn me into Wonder Woman. I am most definitely not stronger than the average man my height or even a few inches shorter than I am. I don't have any special innate self-defence skills because I have long legs. It doesn't increase my pain threshold, or how likely I am to get bruised or broken when struck hard enough. I have no idea how to throw a punch, or how to shield myself while I'm throwing it.

If anything, I would argue that being tall puts me at a disadvantage to some extent. I can't move as fast. It takes longer for me to duck. It's harder for me to escape if I'm in a tight spot.

I've also got the myth going against me. I'm tall, so I'm supposed to be at a lower risk. If I do have someone smaller, man or woman, assault me, and I try to defend myself, what do you think is going to happen to me if my assailant claims I started the fight?

The thing is, height doesn't make might any more than might makes right. There's this weird perception out there that just because a woman is tall, that means she has other physiological attributes normally associated with men her height, like relatively greater strength. There's a whole host of other ways this assumption manifests itself in non-violent situations, but that's a rant for another day.

Meanwhile, stop thinking that just because tall people can reach the top shelf without a stepladder, we can "fight back" any better than shorter people.

how soon we forget

Hey Canadians!

Remember the National Do Not Call List registry?

It was (is!) a web site where you could register your phone numbers — home phone, cell phone, the works — and make sure that companies didn't tie up your phone lines trying to sell you crap. There were some exceptions, which are very clearly explained on the web site, but overall it meant that those after-dinner sales pitches were off your phone and out of your face forever.

In theory.

I don't know about you, but of late it seems to me that I've been getting more of those stupid calls. Since I've been spending my winter vacation at home feeling ill, the resentment of dragging myself out of my sickbed just to find out someone who can't pronounce my last name wants to pitch a chimney flue cleaning service at me has been, uh, increasing. Just ask any of the poor saps who have called me lately.

Then I remembered that the DNCL was only good for so many years, at which point you had to re-register your number.  Aha! Must be that time. So I went and did it, and the web elves who work for the government served me up this page:

(In real life, my actual home phone number displayed, of course.)

Okay, so if I, and everyone else who hit the registration web page as fast as they could, are good until 2013, then what's with the increase in phone solicitations?

Two possible explanations.

One: companies that you already deal with are allowed to call you up and pitch more stuff. So are politicians, newspapers, charities, and a bunch of other organisations. I have learned that if you say the magic words, "I do not accept phone solicitations. Please take me off your list," you can get these calls to diminish, but it takes many tries before it works.

Two: just like many people predicted, companies that indulge in telemarketing just waited a few years until they figured things had settled down, and have quietly started calling people again.

Consider this a public service announcement. If your number is a Canadian phone number and you are registered on the DNCL, you can complain about unsolicited calls via the web link I gave above. You have to know the number that called you, which is a pain for people like me who don't have caller ID, but it can be done.

If you have a Canadian phone number and are not registered yet, you may still do so using the link at the top of this post.

And if you get companies calling you, especially if they sound like some offshore outfit with a poor grasp of which country they're even calling, you can always use the magic words, "I do not accept phone solicitations. Please take me off your list." A professional marketer told me if you use that phrase, any self-respecting business will remove you from their list, because they know it's a waste of call time to try to contact you for a sale. If the person calling you doesn't understand what you mean (the caller I had this afternoon found the statement confusing), just say, "Add me to your kill list." That's telemarketing lingo for a list of numbers the auto-dialers will skip because, again, they know they won't get a sale by calling that number.

It can be a hard slog, but it's worth it for the peace and quiet. Don't forget.

the grinch is my hero

There has to be something redeeming about enduring a six-week headache every bloody year.

If you're one of those types who loves Christmas cheer, Christmas decorations, Christmas presents, Christmas dinner... and especially if you feel offended by those nasty, awful Christmas haters, consider this (true) story that happened when I was in third year university:

Late April, a prematurely warm and humid night, sometime around two AM. At the single student's apartment building — a 300-unit set of real apartments, not dorm rooms — drunken louts are lurching and bellowing in the front drive. They're drinking on the front lawn, they're making an insane amount of noise, and they're doing an excellent job of keeping every other resident who wanted to sleep or study from doing so.

A woman on the third floor who is trying to prep a defence of her master's thesis decides she can't take any more. She sticks her head over her apartment balcony and offers the revellers alternatives to keeping the whole building awake. They could go to a friend's house. They could go to a bar. They could go to one of the empty fields of undeveloped land nearby and party out of earshot. She understands that they're done their exams and want to celebrate, but surely they can understand that not everyone else is on their schedule.

Two of the partiers hurl abuse and gobs of spit, but a third one walks over to where the woman's balcony is, beer bottle in hand, and tries to be philosophical.

"You've got to learn to loosen up," he tells her. "This is the time to enjoy yourself, when you're young. Plenty of time to work hard later on."

"But I'm defending my thesis tomorrow," the woman says. "Please, at least let me get some sleep."

The exchange repeats a few times in the way that such exchanges do, until the philosopher decides to expand his statement.

"What I figure is this," he says. "You've only got so many years to live, right? But no-one ever knows how many. So you might as well enjoy them as much as you can." He takes a pull from the beer bottle for emphasis.

"But I want to defend my thesis." The woman is pleading now. From the sixth-floor balcony where I am overhearing this, it sounds like she's in tears.

There's no point in calling the campus police. It's Sunday night and they're thinly staffed on weekends, especially during exam time. It could be dawn before they show up. There's no point in calling the community police either. Unless someone has punched someone else out, they'll claim it's a job for the campus police.


Eventually the louts did get tired and packed up the lawn party that night, but imagine if they hadn't for six weeks. Imagine there were louts all over the place, doing the same thing. Imagine they had their own set of songs — start with Alice Cooper's "School's Out" and work from there — that only got played during exam time. Imagine retail stores trying to cash in on the post-exam euphoria and having special sales to mark the occasion.

Then remember the Grinch at the start of Seuss's famous Christmas book, complaning about the noise.

Religion, tradition, or rite of passage, it doesn't really matter. If those who need to escape it can't, it's a nightmare, and it's irrelevant how much the participants enjoy it, or how big a community majority they are. If they have left no way to escape, they are being louts, no matter how charitable and moral they may be otherwise.

Yeah, the Grinch capitulated in the end, but that was because he was an anti-consumerist who found an overlap between the Whos's moral framework and his own. It also took heroic efforts on his part to get there.

I don't want to shut down Christmas, not any more than I would want to shut down a group of undergraduates celebrating the end of the school year. At the same time, I don't want anyone to shut me down, either. But that's what happens, every year.

So go ahead and celebrate if you want. Just be mindful of the neighbours.

truth in advertising

My mum sent me this collection of vintage ads with the comment, "The younger generation will never believe these ads actually ran!"


Would it were true.

The only ones that surprised me were the pop ads aimed at babies, especially since they were all about making sure Junior would "fit in" with his peers as a lifelong sugar addict. Even so, I can see it — there's sugary breakfast stuff out there today aimed at (slightly older) kids and their parents that makes claims about giving youngsters "an energetic start to their day" or some such euphemism. The cigarette ads... we've all heard about the cigarette ads, and I'm old enough to remember seeing the "you've come a long way, baby" Virginia Slims ads in the National Enquirer at my grandmother's house, and Marlboro Man billboards during holiday road trips to the States.

That leaves the Del Monte, "wish list," and Kenmore Chef ads from this lot. Domestic cleaning and cooking products are still aimed at women (just not at their husbands for the purposes of buying for women). Also, I know a lot of women of the "younger generation" who will pretend not to be able to open a damn ketchup bottle just so they can get a guy to do it and honestly say he "does stuff" for them.

In fact... maybe we should run ads just like these, except in the present day and for present-day situations. Let the truthiness come out, and then see what happens.

vive la resistance!

It took me a week to recover, but the last week of October had a lot going on, not the least of which was Samhain/Hallowe'en. The cool part was that all of it was inexpensive, accessible, and yet somehow exclusive.

The Sunday before Hallowe'en I met up with the other members of a book club I belong to. Instead of having a book to read, we told each other about books we'd read that we really liked. I brought the books I wanted to talk about along, as did most of the people who attended, so we got to look at cover art and read back-cover blurbs as well as hear about the books — something that will come in handy when I go to look for the books other people mentioned that I want to read.

We met in a café on the Danforth, so the entire cost of that outing was just the tea I bought. Not bad for an entire afternoon spent discussing my favourite subject!

On Wednesday I went to the latest Hutch House Concert, hosted by the ever-cool Cathy & Darren. It was great checking out new (to me) music, and was a lot of fun. The sound quality was noticeably impressive — nice and clear even though we were sitting in an average-sized rec room with the dropped ceilings you always get in houses with forced-air heating. I think any concert I go to now where I don't get to sit on a couch with the musicians less than five metres away is going to be disappointing.

The week wound up with the latest edition of West End Stories on Saturday night. The ever-amazing Joan and ever-inspiring Tara showed up, and a good time was had by all. We stuck with ghost stories/weird tales for the evening in honour of the season. I told the true story of an strict atheist who saw a ghost, and discovered there are only four degrees of separation between the wrestler The Iron Sheik and me (if only I could tell my grandparents — they loved to hate him).

So, three fun events... which wound up costing me less than $25 to attend in total. Try doing that at the local shopping mall!

a directive

For the American Moderns class I took in university, I had a professor named Geoffrey Rans. He told my class... being our lecturer, he told the class a lot of things, but I made a point of writing down something he told us as he was assigning our mid-term essays:

Go for the authors you like.
Celebrate them.
Justify them.

When you've got four senior-level mid-term essay assignments staring you in the face, that's very heady stuff.

It's dangerous to pin a change in direction to a remark a prof makes off-the-cuff, but the truth is my attitude towards books has become a lot more extroverted since then. In elementary and high school, I thought of books as secrets only I got to know. Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang? I took it out of the school library so many times in a row that Mrs. Zimmer, our librarian, forgot to stamp the renewal date on the card once and I got in trouble for it being overdue. I now own a copy of the same edition that was in Brisbane Public School way back when. But I don't remember telling anyone why it was so great. 

Ten years later I was doing the same thing with another of Mordecai Richler's when I read Joshua Then and Now. To be fair, I tried to tell a few people about that one, but I got a lot of eye-rolling and, "But it's not for a class? Are you nuts?" in return.

Consequently, I never tried to tell anyone about Oh Happy Death, at least not until my friend Deb played Crocodiles by Echo & the Bunnymen for me. And I never did find an excuse to rave about how great La Peste was (still tied for first with L'Etranger in my personal Camus list).

Still, one tries, and one does improve. A big milestone was when I was able to rant about Samuel Beckett's Murphy and Watt so successfully that a co-worker thought they were films (um, it wasn't an office where people read much). Speaking of films, it was a lot of fun to tell people that if they liked Cronenberg's takes on Naked Lunch and Crash, then they really should read the books. Somewhat evil, but fun.

This past year I've waved copies of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, You and the Pirates, and Dark Matter under other readers' noses and tried to make it very, very clear that it was important to their lives to read these books. Dark Matter itself was a gift from the ever-literary Howard & Rhonda.

I remember thinking, even as I scribbled down what Rans had said in the top margin of my notebook, that it was odd the phrase he used was, "Go for the authors you like," instead of "Go for the books you like." For most readers, most of the time, it's the book they know, not the author of it.

Right now I'm reading Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril, and I think I'm finally starting to understand. Reading it isn't just learning about an amazing science fiction writer —  it's re-learning all those SF books I used to take out of the public library and nosh through the way the other twelve-year-olds used to nosh through a bag of Pop Rocks. It's hard to believe now, but I was the only girl I knew who read science fiction.

But that's the best part: if you go for the authors you like, justify them, and celebrate them, you will find other readers like you, and the amount of justifying and celebrating will only increase from there.

dedication dithering

I have a painting by bill bissett that hangs over my bed:

It was bought directly from bill, in bill's apartment, and has a dedication from bill written on the back.

The dedication is not to me. It's to my ex, who bought it when I wasn't present. When he left me, at the last dividing-up-our-stuff session, he glanced at the painting (then gracing the living room) and said, "You want that? You always liked it."

I was astonished. "Sure, I'd love to have it."

"Keep it." And that was that.

What do dedications and autographs mean? I used to think they were souvenirs, reminders that the you got to meet the someone who had created the something you liked so much. To discard the signed something would be to discard the appreciation that led you to seek out the signing in the first place.

I've learned it hasn't always been that way. I've seen someone use a dedication or autograph to steal a book from someone else ("Oh, when he signed it he put it to me, not you. I guess he misunderstood. I'll get you another copy"), to make the fake authentic, to commodify something as insignificant as a paper serviette.

Above all, in the downloadable age, what does a signature mean anymore? And what's to sign if nothing is in a  version one can touch? I've heard stories of people getting their iPods signed, but I've never known anyone who's had this done, and it seems silly to get something signed when you'll be lucky if you can even get it to work in twenty years' time.

So what's really of value? The signature or the signed?

kicks

I think it works like this.

Sometimes when I'm knitting in public, people will stop and say something like, "I wish I could do that, but I'd never have the patience." My standard response to this is, "a stitch only takes about .75 seconds to create — how much patience do you need?"

It's all about mindset. Sure, an average adult sweater has about 40,000 stitches in it, but if your satisfaction is at the stitch level, that means you just get a kick every .75 seconds about 40,000 times before you have to think about making something new. Talk about cheap thrills, right?

There's a another payoff level, though, and it's when you finish something. That kick can vary, depending on how difficult the execution was, how physically big the item is (very tiny and very large items have the biggest kicks), how desperately you need to finish the damn thing, and how valued it will be by the intended recipient.

A couple of Sundays ago I made this floor cushion:
Since I am nigh-phobic about machine sewing, this was a big accomplishment for me. I still pet the thing like a toddler with a new plush toy, and haven't actually placed it on the floor since I took this photo.

About a week after that I made this necklace and earring set:
It took all of a Monday evening, but I got to use construction methods I don't normally use. It felt pretty good to finish it all in one night.

Now, when I'm supposed to be working on my novel, I'm writing this blog. The blog's a nice quick hit of satisfaction — the template will make it look pretty on the web, I put two nice colourful photos in it, and I got to write something and call it done.

But it's a one-kick wonder. Once it's done, I don't get anything else out of it.

The novel, on the other hand, is sitting just shy of 20,000 words. I know by the time I finish rewrite #2 it will be real, actual novel-length. That's the plan, and although I still think it's a good plan, recently I've been frustrated because I want that "it's done! it's ready to pitch!" kick. But it's not ready for that yet, not nearly. I don't mean in a perfectionist-writer way. I mean in a gotta-finish-the-damn-story way.

In the meantime, I have to remind myself that I can get 500 decent words' worth of story-telling out in about half an hour. 500 decent words in 30 minutes is 16.67 words a minute. How much patience do I need?

if this is not an exercise, could it be a....

I'm still thinking about the act of reading, maybe because I spontaneously wrote a first draft to an illustrated children's book this week. I put all the snippets of text that are now waiting for illustrations into a numbered list for ease of reference ("the last sentence in #9 should be the first sentence in #10, don't you think?"), then ran the whole thing through a reading comprehension test to make sure I was writing for the right grade level.

It turned out I was writing at the right grade level, and it's all well and good, except... I'm not sure how all these numbers got in the way of reading.

Throughout my life I have been accused of both reading too quickly and reading too slowly, of skimming too much and of reading in too much detail. I know people who will not take a book seriously simply because it has a very low page count — or a very high one. When I tell acquaintances that I write (or knit, or bake, or sew) they always want to know what I call "baseball information": how many words do I write a day? how long does it take me to knit a pair of socks? how do I find the time to bake my own bread?

I call it "baseball information" because that sport is famous for being more statistically analysed than most others. It's also a reminder that writing, knitting, baking, sewing, and many other tasks are not baseball — they do not break down easily into statistics, and even if they did, the statistics won't tell the questioner what they want to know.

It doesn't matter how many words I write in a day. It matters whether the words, once written, are any damn good. It also matter if they are not good, but can be salvaged by editing. I find it fascinating that far more people want to know how many words I write a day than want to know how much time I spend editing them.

I have been knitting socks for almost twenty of my thirty years of knitting, and I still have no idea how long they take to make.

Since I stopped watching things as they baked in the oven when I was five, baking takes hardly any time at all.  In the case of bread, the human spends much less time working on the bread than the yeast do.

Even if I bothered to do a statistical analysis of these tasks, the numbers would not tell you: how good my writing is, why hand-made socks will always be better than mass-produced ones, how much fun it is to make bread. Numbers are certainly important —  they tell you how much yarn you need for a pair of socks and how long to bake the bread, for starters  — but they are not the whole story and were never meant to be.

Never mind how long the damn book is. It's good. The number of pages was important to the editor, the publisher, the book designer, the printer. Their only benefit to an end-user is if that end-user is a consumer, not a reader. There is a difference.

sanctuary vs. sanctimonious

The Eyrea closed its borders for a while. A certain list of things happened at once: I got sick, every blog topic on my list seemed ridiculous, and I got very frustrated with how much time I was spending on the blog versus how much time I was spending on writing my novel. That Toronto was also heading into the height of harvest season (the physical Eyrea is a heavy supporter of local farmers) contributed to the break as well.

The hiatus was actually very productive. I revamped my novel plans, figured out a new blog schedule, and did a lot of reading. I also spent a lot of time thinking about the act of reading, and the fallout that happens when that act doesn't get thought through properly.

For instance:

I was one of those kids who learned how to read nigh-instantly, not gradually. There are plenty of people like that — any given university English class has tons of people who did the same — but I know from teacher's college that we're not usually accounted for when elementary school curricula are planned.

When I was about eleven I borrowed The Hunchback of Notre Dame from the school library. The librarian praised me for starting on the classics at an early age. My teacher praised me. My parents praised me.

This is how I learned two important things. One: not nearly as many people who think they know the Hunchback story have actually read the book. Two: if a book with sex, violence, and cruelty in it is old enough, the age for which it is appropriate lowers.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame isn't exactly Flowers in the Attic, or even Lady Chatterly's Lover, but it does have:
  • a man attempting to seduce a woman and getting as far as taking her blouse off

  • a woman bound to the back of a cart wearing nothing but a slip, trying to keep it from falling down by holding on to the top edge with her teeth as she is paraded through the streets of Paris

  • a crazy old woman kept in a cage... just because she's a crazy old woman


There's more where those examples came from, but the point of this blog post isn't to ban Hunchback from elementary schools. Even as I was reading it I was thinking, "I'm too young for this stuff." But I read it anyhow, and as near as I can tell there were no permanent scars as a result. Sure, I lost faith in the wisdom of grown-ups, but that was about due to happen anyhow.

My point, if anything, is to offer a public service announcement to remind grown-ups that children do not grow up in a happy never-never land, and that, try as they might, adults are pretty bad at deciding what is and isn't "appropriate" for a given book-reading kid. There's a difference between protecting kids and isolating them, after all.

Also: The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an excellent read for anyone who likes Gothic horror, and would make a nice back-to-back with Frankenstein. Read it if you're old enough to get away with being seen carrying it.

an open letter

Dear Mr. Hartling of Rogers Consumer Marketing:

I recently received a letter from Rogers, signed by you. In it, you promised me my choice of one of three options to receive television transmissions from Rogers instead of from Bell.

Let's get one thing perfectly clear right off the top: I'm aware that this is a form letter, that my name isn't "Resident", that the letter certainly wasn't personal. It's 2010 already. You have to give me some benefit of the doubt.

You said you missed me, and wanted me to come back. You said I used to be your customer.

There's marketing, sir, and then there's laziness.

Instead, I got a mass mailer that said you missed me. Yet you, or more precisely, your database, had never known me. Which I guess is how I wound up being called "Resident". So how can you miss me?

This is about the point where you might be thinking, "It's only an ad. Don't be so goddamned serious about it."

Yes, it's only an ad. But it's an ad that was a failure right from the pitch line.

Isn't the whole point of ads to make us feel like these mass-produced products and services, this remarkably narrow set of choices, are tailored just for the individual being pitched at?

plastic degradable cognitive dissonance

In case it hasn't been desperately obvious, here in The Eyrea we like to be environmentally-friendly  without being uptight about it. The most joy, it seems, comes from being practical and keeping things simple — being thrifty saves way more trees than any complex substitution scheme of one overconsumption for another.

One simple way to check on the environmental friendliness of something is to keep in mind the four Rs:

  1. Reduce
  2. Reuse
  3. Recycle
  4. Rubbish
For anyone who missed the public service announcements, those are in order of preference. It's best, garbage-wise, if you use less stuff. If you have to use stuff, try to use it more than once. If you must toss it, try to make sure the stuff you have to toss can go in the recycle bin. Tossing it in the garbage is an action of last resort.

The problem is, once the last resort is taken, a lot of things sit in the landfill and just stay the way they were pretty much when they were first tossed. Plastic bags especially seem good at preventing things from doing what we'd like them to do: rot. People who study these things have all sorts of stories about opening garbage bags dumped in landfills in the 1970s, and the grass clippings inside are still green. That's because the plastic has prevented the grass clippings and other organic materials from getting at the natural forces that let it rot. Things like sunlight, damp, and bugs can't do their work with the plastic in the way.

So some bright spark came up with a plastic bag that biodegrades. That means it will rot, eventually, on its own. Sounds great, right? The grass clippings or whatever will be free to rot, and the plastic bag will break down into its component parts. With any luck, those component parts won't even be toxic.

Look at that four Rs list again.

The problem with biodegradable plastic bags is that they're too stupid to know if they're in a landfill or not before they start biodegrading. "Reuse" is a whole two steps above "Rubbish" — that's a long way on a four-item list. Hell, I've got Eaton's shopping bags from when they still had the skinny-lettered logo, before they switched to the boldfaced one just a few years before they went under. Those bags are over fifteen years old.

A biodegradable bag starts to biodegrade in a matter of months. Here's how I found out:
Before it started breaking up into little crumbs of brittle white plastic, this was the bag I used to bring my pashmina shawl to work in the wintertime. It was packed flat with the layers of clothing you see with it for the summer. When I first found the bag with the chewed-looking holes in it and damage scattered all about, I thought it was mouse damage. I've lived in three places that had mice, and believe me, it took a long time for me to come down from the ceiling and discover that it was another type of laboratory inhabitant entirely who had caused this.

I picked up all the big pieces that I could and threw them in the — yeah — garbage, but a lot of the smaller bits were too little to pick up easily. Every time I touched one, it would break into smaller crumbs.

Vacuuming helps a bit, but the machines have a hard time picking up the bits.
See all the crumbs stuck to the underside of the vacuum? Just because it's biodegradable doesn't mean it's not still plastic. Think of the susceptibility to static charges and the overall clinginess of a typical plastic bag. Now imagine several hundred plastic bags that are all about the size of a thimble, and which break apart if you or a vacuum cleaner touches them. Right.

I've managed to track white plastic crumbs throughout my entire apartment, and so far I'm only grateful that I don't have any pets at the moment. The only cleaning solution I can think of is to buy a lint roller that uses those sticky paper things (yeah, I know, more landfill) and roll it across any parts of my floor that have plastic crumbs.

If anyone's already dealt with this and has any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

Gmail

After the actual Google search engine, Gmail was probably the first Google app I started using. I'd had it to the teeth with my Bell Sympatico internet connection, and was shopping around for a new ISP. That meant my sympatico.ca e-mail account would be going away. I didn't really want to use Hotmail because I used to train people on how to do tech support for it (along with sausage and journalism, the workings widely-deployed web apps should not be seen by the weak-stomached).

At the time, too, maximum attachment sizes and maximum mailbox sizes were pretty punitive for web-based e-mail. Besides that, some web mail clients were trying to police their users by not allowing files with certain extensions through. Since I'd been using PKZip since DOS was the norm on PCs and tended to write some of those "forbidden" files myself (like .JS files), I was pretty annoyed at just about everyone offering web e-mail.

I begged an invitation to Gmail off the person that told me about sometime in the summer of 2004 (my absolute earliest e-mails are long gone, and not terribly missed). What made me sign up was:
  • their maximum on-line mailbox size was (and still is) bigger than most other web-based e-mail clients
  • they had keyboard shortcuts way before anyone else
  • you can use the Google search tool to hack through your inbox and find messages
  • even though the infamous "keyword targeted ads" are there, the interface is much less flashy and therefore tends to load more quickly than the competition's
  • the ads themselves are not entirely bad — I usually get ones for Wired.com, which I read anyhow.
I don't know if the numbers would back me up on this, but I suspect Gmail is also Google's most popular tool (after the search engine). It seems like a lot of people have accounts, even if they're not primary accounts. That's easy to manage, because Google lets you grab mail from other accounts and will even label it for you. You can even reply back using Gmail, but say it's from the other account. I manage three accounts from one Gmail address, and it works great.
    Gmail was also the first web mail app (that I know of) that encouraged you not to file away things in folders. Instead, you just kept everything in your inbox and then searched through it when you needed something. When Gmail came on the scene, this was weird, and outright frowned upon at the offices I worked at. Now it's the norm, and other e-mail apps have had to improve their search capabilities to keep up.

    Gmail's account capacity is now somewhere in the neighbourhood of 7.5 GB (they keep increasing the inbox size gradually), they've recently added a task list feature, and the contacts list has improved a lot from the early days. They also have integrated chat now. This is different from the ill-fated Buzz, which seems to have been some sort of Twitter competitor and that no-one I know ever took too seriously. They don't seem to have a lot of downtime, and, although I noticed that my on-line inbox only goes back to 2005 now, they don't seem to lose accounts a lot. From what I have heard, when they do, it's game over, but that's just another reason why you shouldn't trust cloud computing and should always have a backup mailbox.

    Like anything else that's free, if you think you could use it, you should check it out.