17 Mar 2008


When I told people that I'd be going to Portland for SIGCSE this year, they all said I'd like it, and I believed them. I just wasn't prepared for how much I'd fall in love with Portland. Especially given my reaction to Seattle---it was nice enough, but the downtown was kind of sterile and sprawly and pedestrian unfriendly---I was figuring that Portland would be ok but a little dreary, nice enough to visit but also nice enough to leave.

In fact, I could pretty much just stay here. I can't think of anyplace I've visited that was so clearly designed for me personally. Barcelona was close; as I mentioned when I visited there, it was a place that seemed like I'd have at least several months' worth of stuff to do just seeing the city. Providence I liked, but a lot of it was attached to Brown and anyway it took me living there to discover a lot about it. There's Chicago, of course, but that's its own mixed bag.

Portland made its initial good impression when the fast, clean light rail whisked me from the airport to my hotel. And since that initial trip, I've paid for my public transit exactly once, because the downtown (including my hotel) is in the fareless square---totally free transit. Not that I'd need it; I have never seen such a walkable city. The streets are surprisingly narrow (for this part of the country) and closely-spaced, and you'd be surprised what a difference that makes in terms of getting places. The downtown is quite dense, too, and so you don't have to walk too far to get to pretty much anything.

There appear to be things to get to, as well. The Saturday Market has a range of stuff for sale; some of it touristy kitsch but much of it fairly usable. And there are musicians playing and an array of food stands reminiscent of the Taste of Chicago (except without the insane crowds, and with the public transit running right down the middle of it). "Elephant ears": not to be missed. Elsewhere in the city one can find a lot of mid- to upscale shopping, including a vertically-built mall spread over four city blocks (with underground tunnel and skyway to connect). Powell's is everything people say: enormous and with every kind of book, at really good prices, and with the used books mixed right in where you can easily find them. I wandered through some great resale shops near there, and there's a six-screen "living room" theatre that plays indy and old films.

Right now I'm sitting in a café called "Backspace" that Matt recommended, trying to do all my grading (I just finished another round, which is why I'm writing this). It's everything you could want in boho exposed-brick chic, plus free wireless and a couple banks of desktop machines. As friendly as Galesburg is, I've had more random conversations with strangers just in this room than I can remember having in months. Something about the atmosphere here makes me chattier too---as gregarious as I tend to be when friends are around, I'm generally shy about talking to totally unknown strangers; I've been the one starting the conversation at least half the time here.

It may have something to do with a subconscious evaluation of whether my interlocutor is likely to have something in common with me, if only world outlook. Because all of Portland, or at least downtown Portland, seems to be vastly more tech-savvy, geeky, and/or environmentally conscious than all but the most radical residents of the Midwest or even New England. When a shopkeeper asks if you want a bag, and they all ask, the default is no. When I get a new cup of coffee, I'm asked if they can just quick-rinse the mug I had before. Matt went so far as to apologise for how bad the metro wi-fi was---as if the very existence of a metro wifi in the first place wasn't already screaming past just about every other city.

I could get used to this.

"Yeah, well I patented screwing your mom. But it got revoked for 'prior art'. --plunge

Posted by blahedo at 9:47pm | Comments (4)

Hurray for heritage

This isn't the post you've been expecting, if you know what I've been up to. That'll come a little later.

This morning, I was awakened by a phone call at 7:50am from the CIty of Galesburg. (To be fair, it was 9:50 back home.) They wanted to let me know about the check that my BillPay had sent for the water bill---the bill was $73.42 or so, but the check was for $7,432.00. This woke me up right quick. Ann, the clerk who called me, knew I wouldn't want her to cash it, but should they shred it or would I come pick it up, and by the way how was I actually paying the bill?

The paying part was easy, as I could do so by credit card, and as for the check, I certainly couldn't come by, so I told them to shred it. At this point I wasn't worried about that check anymore, but I wanted to make sure I hadn't done the same thing with anyone else's check! So I tried to log in to my bank's website, but the problem with storing passwords in a keychain is that when you go to use an unfamiliar computer you can't always remember the password. :( Before long it had locked me out.

So I called my bank, Heritage Credit Union, to check on things. By pure chance I got Cory, a teller who I had opened the account with and I'd dealt with several times before. So we chatted for a moment and I explained the problem, and she saw the $7K charge, but happily no others that were two orders of magnitude out of range. BUT, the problem turned out to be that BillPay checks are not like regular checks, and the money is actually withdrawn from the account first. So I really didn't want that check shredded. Let me call you right back, I told her.

But over at City Hall, Ann had already helpfully shredded the check. Which was exactly what I'd said to do, and she didn't want any chance of it accidentally being cashed (see, she thought it was like a regular check too), and I think she felt bad, but I told her I'd deal with it through the bank.

So back to Cory, who actually swore when I told her they'd already shredded the check---and let me say I really appreciated the heartfelt empathy in this reaction, because part of my brain was now wondering if $7K had just evaporated, even as the rest was sure that I couldn't be the only person who had done this and there must be a way to fix it. She gave me an 800 number for the BillPay folks, who would have to be the ones to help.

I got through to them right away, and their immediate reaction was that hey, they could just stop the check. I said yes, and by the way how much would that cost? Not that the fee would keep me from doing it, of course. :) He processed it, gave me a confirmation number, and then said my account would be credited in 2-3 days. Then, he gave me a number to call to ask what the fee was, because he didn't know.

At this point, the story becomes a little surreal, because when I called that number the people at Heritage corporate HQ were not sure what the fee was and didn't know why the BillPay guy had referred me there. After a few minutes of looking, she asked if she could call me back.

Like TWENTY MINUTES LATER, I get a call back saying that the stop-check order didn't cost anything. Still no word on why the BillPay guy didn't know that!

But at that point the saga ends. I called Cory back and left a message to tell her it had worked out ok, because I was sure she'd want to know. I suppose I'm supposed to wish that the whole stop-check thing should have operated as more of a well-oiled machine, but honestly, the way things played out just made the whole bank seem a lot more human, which was exactly what I needed. Yay Heritage!

On the Supreme Court decision about the 2000 election: "No, they just followed the principle of 'one person, one vote'. And Gore lost the election, 5-4." --Michael Kimmitt

Posted by blahedo at 7:17pm | Comments (0)

4 Mar 2008

On Greeks and exclusivity

Knox's Greek system has recently been growing, and as a member of the Student Life Committee I've been a close witness to a lot of it. Some of the faculty has recently charged us (SLC) with looking at it, and so we compiled a report with all sorts of data about our local Greeks; and yesterday the faculty had a lengthy debate about it. I'm not sure what some of them hope to accomplish, because drastic measures like closing the Greek system simply aren't on the table, but much of the discussion was coming from a fairly small number of faculty members who feel very strongly anti-Greek.

Having spent so much time with SLC's Greek report, I've had a lot of time to form my opinions about the various aspects of the Greek system. One comment yesterday did give me pause, however; I was explaining (in response to a question) a bit about the familial relationships that many Greek students hope to (and do) find in their respective organizations, and Steve Fineberg coldly pointed out that this sort of argument is a typical justification for racism and other -isms, and not appropriate.

He's at least part right, of course, and at the time it shut me right up, but on reflection, I think that there's more to it. Of course, I don't believe that these sorts of "affiliative needs" are important enough to trump clear humanitarian concerns like race and class discrimination. And on the surface, he's exactly right—this sort of argument was used to perpetuate institutions like the all-white country club, and worse. However, one shouldn't judge an idea by the company it keeps, and it seems to me that this sort of tighter-than-friends bond has the potential to be a very positive thing, often realises this potential, and thus is not inherently problematic, as long as it isn't just a front for the discriminatory country club mentality.

That's why we need to, and did, look further into the data. We need to ask: is there evidence that Knox's Greek system discriminates on the basis of some protected class?

  • It does inherently discriminate based on gender. I won't lie, I'm not entirely comfortable with that, but I'm willing to give it a pass because I have yet to hear a single student complain about this, even when I prompted for it. This also, with a few exceptions, didn't seem to be the area that faculty had a problem with.
  • The fraternities pretty clearly don't (other than gender, as mentioned). Their ethnic and income profiles are a nearly perfect match for the student body at large.
  • The sororities might, slightly. I don't know if the divergences are significant, because I haven't run the full statistical analysis, but the sorority membership numbers are smaller and therefore more noisy, so it's a bad idea to read too much into them. If it is a true bias, it is at least a slight one, and one we can hope to work on to fix rather than simply condemn as irreparable.

The system is surely not perfect, but given that it is neither inherently bad nor irredeemable, I'm interested in working to fix it. And despite what some other members of the faculty might think, I think that where problems exist, just about everybody in the Greek system would be interested in fixing it too.

"I've also come to simply accept that I will never get an answer from tech support/sales at a cell phone company, radio shack, best buy, or a travel agency that is better or more accurate than what I could have researched myself. I will instead be lied to by someone who lacks any training in the product they support in order to decrease call handle times or increase sales. Even when you're REALLY confused and can't sort out the jargon that they publish it is still the wrong choice to call and ask these companies because they have no more information than you and they care about understanding it a whole lot less." --Zach Miller

Posted by blahedo at 12:46pm | Comments (9)