Rules, Rules, Rules

I think a lot about rules. I’m not a rigid stickler for rules. I believe a lot in taking rules in context. There are times rules matter, and times they really don’t. But I do think it’s important to understand the rules. There are two things to understand about rules: 1) that they exist to keep things running smoothly, and 2) that there is (or at least should be) a reason behind any good rule. Rules that have no clear, broadly agreeable purpose or that are difficult to follow should be reconsidered.

But a lot of rules are pretty simple. Like the rules of the road. And I think a lot about rules of the road, because I’m on the road a lot, in various ways — in a car, on a bike, or on foot.

The rules of the road are simple, but they don’t seem quite as simple to me living in Minneapolis in the 2010s as they did when I was a kid growing up in a small town in the 1980s. Back then, roads were for cars. The only people who biked were kids and adults who had lost their licenses for DUI. And you biked on the sidewalk.

People only walked with their dogs, and generally only in a 2-block radius of their house, the lone exception being the one Vietnam vet with untreated PTSD who refused to wear shoes or use the sidewalk. He could always be seen around town with his dreadlocks, blanket and bare feet, shuffling along in the boulevard grass. I hope things got better for him.

But I digress. That was the 1980s. In contemporary Minneapolis, everyone uses the roads for just about everything. And sometimes it gets messy. There are many places in the park areas of the city where there are three parallel strips of asphalt: a pedestrian path, a bike path, and the road. All clearly marked for their intended purpose. In most of these places, the road is very narrow — two lanes with no shoulder or parking lanes. But you get pedestrians on the bike path (why? who the hell knows?) and bikes on the road (why? to get away from the dumbass pedestrians! or because they think they’re in the Tour de France!) and things get tangled up.

Even when you’re on regular city streets, biking can be a hazardous endeavor. The rule (whether it’s codified as a city ordinance or just a gentle encouragement on road signs) is “SHARE THE ROAD”. But there are cars that nearly run bikers onto the curb, just as there are bikers who ride side-by-side at such a leisurely speed that I wonder how they keep their balance, backing up car traffic for blocks. SHARE THE ROAD goes both ways.

Me? I’m too scared as a biker to ride on major thoroughfares if I can possibly avoid it. I usually stick to those dedicated bike paths when I can. Otherwise, I try to ride on low-traffic residential streets, generally a block or two over from the major thoroughfare. It just seems much, much safer.

But you do encounter clueless drivers. Drivers who will stop for you at an intersection when they don’t have a stop sign and you (the biker) do, and are clearly coming to a stop. Or, drivers who will breeze right through their own stop signs even when you (the biker) have the right-of-way, either because they didn’t see you or because they live a block away and always breeze through that stop sign.

Yes… you may have guessed that I am not just speaking hypothetically here. Both of those situations in the previous paragraph have happened to me. In fact, they happened on the same street, one block apart. Obviously the latter situation (which happened last year) is far more dangerous, and it led to me braking so abruptly I nearly flipped my bike, followed by a loud string of profanity hurled in the semi-apologetic driver’s direction.

The former situation happened to me just this morning, and prompted today’s rant. I was approaching a stop sign, and slowing to a stop. To my left, a white SUV also came to a stop, even though they didn’t have a stop sign. Presumably they didn’t trust that I was going to stop, even though I was vigorously waving them on with my left arm as I braked with my right. Even though I came to a complete stop, got off my bike, and even more vigorously waved them on. Finally they did go and I got the satisfaction of having successfully enforced the rules. (Sort of. I mean, I didn’t actually give the universal “stop” hand signal. Yes, I broke a rule. But I figured my vigorous waving-on covered it.)

But that got me thinking about the rules themselves. You have the official rules of the road, which tell you that you stop at a stop sign and don’t stop when you don’t have one. Bikes are supposed to follow the same road rules as cars, with (as I recently learned) a few exceptions designed to facilitate faster movement, most notable being that it’s OK for a biker to run a red light, if they have first come to a complete stop and verified that there is no other traffic (cross traffic or oncoming left turns, for example). But I doubt a lot of drivers know this rule, and when they see bikers doing it, probably assume (like I would have before) that it’s one more biker breaking the rules.

Which gets me to the second kind of rules — the unwritten, unspoken rules that grow naturally from collective experience. There are so many bikers who completely ignore all of the rules of the road that many drivers either a) assume the worst out of any biker they encounter and exert excessive caution or b) hit the bikers. (Or, as happened last year, they lose their fucking minds and drive around hurling cinder blocks out their car windows.)

I feel like the situation I ran into today was due to the second type of rule. The driver of the white SUV has encountered enough unpredictable bikers — who are best known for their peculiarly selective blindness to red octagons — that they weren’t going to take any chances with me. So the fact that I did follow the rules and stop for a stop sign actually caused a problem. A minor problem, to be sure, but still enough that it lingered with me all morning. (I wonder what that driver is thinking about right now. Almost certainly not me. This is my affliction.)

So, we are living in a society where we have two types of rules: the official rules, and the unspoken ones. Often in direct conflict. Which rules take precedence? Sadly, as much as I want to live in a world where the official rules are logical, reasonable, fair to all, and easy to follow, I fear that we really live in a world where the official rules are so often inconsistent, incomprehensible, unjust or just simply a burden — not to mention out of touch with the realities of human behavior — that the unspoken rules become the ones that people actually follow.

So then what? Should I just give up on the official rules? Should I breeze through stop signs on my bike because “everyone else is doing it”? Should I stubbornly adhere to my way of doing things and get my dander up every time I have to frantically gesture at someone else to get them to accept their own right-of-way?

Or, should I just lighten the hell up?

In that spirit, I come to the third type of rules. The Rules.

The Rules is a tongue-in-cheek book of… rules… written by a former coworker and bandmate who is obsessed with cycling to a level I will never be. I ride a secondhand bike to get around town. I have become quite a fan of watching the Tour de France every July, in part just because there’s an app for it that I feel really does 21st century sportscasting right and I wish every sport were covered this way. But mostly because I enjoy seeing the French countryside, admiring the intensity and endurance of the riders, and, occasionally, moments like riders punching morons on the sidelines.

Anyway… forget about city ordinances or social norms. The real rules of cycling are another matter entirely. And far more entertaining than my rants will ever be.

Hey look, new fonts

I’m sure by the time you read this, 5 years from now, I will have changed things 8 to 10 times since writing this, but as of right now… hey, look. Same old site design, but with new fonts!

One new font, actually: Work Sans, in three weights. It’s a great new, no-nonsense but aesthetically pleasing sans serif font that is free which makes it extra nice. (Though I do not begrudge font designers the right to compensation for their work.)

This one initially got my attention by way of a blog post by the great Khoi Vinh. I figured, if he likes it, it’s worth noting.

Last, This, Next

As I was folding a week’s subset of my embarrassingly large collection of printed t-shirts, I reflected momentarily on the history of my pixelated Minnesota t-shirt. I bought that t-shirt last summer and wore it each time I went to the Minnesota State Fair last year, as my symbol of “Minnesota pride”.

Then I started thinking about sharing this story, and about referring to the Minnesota State Fair that took place in 2013 as the “last” Minnesota State Fair, and how the one that will take place “this” year, in 2014, is “this” State Fair, and so on.

Frequently conversations between SLP and me have resulted in confusion based on the different possible interpretations of “last”, “this” and “next” when referring to days, weeks, months, years or events. I tend to use “this” when I’m referring to any unit of time that occurs within the same larger unit of time, whether before or after the current one, although I may be likely to omit “this”.

For example, today is Thursday. The Super Bowl (or, if you prefer, the Suberb Owl) is happening in 3 days. It’s happening “this Sunday”. But what if today was (or is it “were”? I never get that right, either) already “Superb Owl Sunday” and I was (“were”?) talking about the 5K race I’m running in 7 days later? “This” Saturday seems a bit far off in that case. But “next” Saturday doesn’t feel right to me either. Or does it? Is it better for “next” Saturday to refer to a day that’s 6 days away, or 13?

As for my confusion with SLP, the fact that she lived her life on the September-to-June academic calendar for much longer than I did only exacerbated the situation. I’ve always been a stickler (to the point of ridiculousness) for precision in dates. The first day out of school isn’t the beginning of summer; the solstice is. The first day back in school isn’t the beginning of fall; the equinox is. And the first day back in school in late August or early September most definitely is not the beginning of the new year. (Although yes, Rosh Hashanah usually does occur in September so depending on the calendar you use, there’s an argument to be made.)

Ironically, it was only after SLP stopped organizing her life around the academic year that I embraced calling any of the days in early-to-mid June when our kids are out of school (but which are still technically in spring) “summer”, but I will never give up the idea that “this year” refers to the 4-digit number starting with a “2” that comes at the end of the current date. “This year,” to me, means January 1 to December 31. Period.

But what do I mean when I say “this winter”? Sure, winter technically only starts about 10 days before the new year, so it’s almost entirely in 2014. But let’s be honest. In Minnesota, “winter” usually starts in early December, or sometimes as early as October. By my logic, “winter” in Minnesota begins on whatever day snow falls and doesn’t melt away. We had a few light snows in November, but “this winter” began on December 2, 2013.

My point is: language is fuzzy. Assigning vague labels like “last”, “this” and “next” to our days and events relies on a great deal of tacit agreement between ourselves over meaning. This particular quirk of our language has been causing me trouble since I was a kid. Back then I had a lot of time, sitting around bored in school (which I didn’t even realize was the case until much later in life), to ponder and obsess over and get annoyed by things like this. I was trying to create in my mind a world of precision and clarity that didn’t, and couldn’t, exist. Our minds don’t work that way, the world doesn’t work that way, and language, a product of our minds used to help us understand and communicate with each other about the world, necessarily can’t work that way.

I didn’t understand that then, and I only barely do now. Each of us carries around an entire universe in our mind. It’s built on a foundation laid by our genes and constructed around our experiences — and our interpretations of those experiences. Our language can only achieve an approximation of a fraction of that universe, and we have to rely on the assumption that our own version of the language we use is a close enough approximation of the same things in our own mental universe as the language, and the mental universe it represents, of the others around us.

It’s a wonder we can communicate at all.

From the Stupid PHP Tricks files: rounding numbers and creeping inaccuracy

This morning as I walked to the studio I was doing what geeks do best: pondering a slightly esoteric mathematical quandary.

Glass Half Full by S_novaIngraining the American spirit of optimism at a young age, and under dubious circumstances, our schools always taught rounding numbers in a peculiar way. You always round your decimal values to the nearest integer. That part makes sense. But what if the decimal is .5 — exactly half? In my education, at least until late in high school (or was it college?), we were always taught to round up! The glass is half full. Optimism.

Eventually — far later than it should have been, I think — the concept was introduced that always rounding .5 up is not really that accurate, statistically speaking. It might be nice in the case of a single number to be an optimist and think a solid half is good as a whole, but in aggregate this thinking introduces a problem.

If you have a whole lot of numbers, and you’re always rounding your halves up, eventually your totals are going to be grossly inaccurate.

Of course, the same would happen if you were ever the pessimist and always rounded down.

The solution, I later learned, was to round halves up or down, depending upon the integer value that precedes them. Which way you go doesn’t really matter, as long as you’re consistent, but as it happens, I learned it as such: if the integer is odd, round up; if it is even, round down.

In my work, I write a lot of PHP code. Most of it is of the extremely practical variety; I’m building websites for clients, after all. But every once in a while I like to indulge my coding abilities in a bit of frivolous experimentation, and so today I produced a little PHP script that generates 10,000 random numbers between 1 and 100, with one decimal place, and then it shows the actual sum and average of those numbers, along with what you get as the sum and average if you go through all 10,000 numbers and round them to whole integers by the various methods described above. Try it for yourself!

Any time the rounded average is different from the “precise” (and I use that term somewhat loosely) average, it is displayed in red. Interestingly, and not at all surprisingly, when you always round halves in one direction or the other, at least one of those directions will (almost) always yield an incorrect average. Yet if you use the “even or odd” methods, both of those methods will almost always yield a correct average.

It’s all about the aggregate.

Into the storm

It began like many other Friday evenings. Our kids were on their way to “Kids’ Night Out,” a 3-hour activity at Lake Hiawatha Park, about a mile from our house. It was going to be a more exciting evening than most, as the whole group was going to walk over to nearby Lake Nokomis Park for a small neighborhood carnival-type event that was going on there.

Meanwhile, SLP and I did what we often do for those few hours: got takeout from a Thai restaurant and went home to watch some Netflix. (What can I say? We’re well on our way to old and boring. It’s even worse if you know what we watched.)

All indications for us were that there might be some rain on the way, and we thought it might force the carnival indoors. Unfortunate, but… oh well.

Around 7:40, just as our show was ending, we got a couple of weather alerts on our iPhones — not the usual Notification Center alerts from our weather apps of choice, but the serious government/emergency alerts the cellular networks send out for things like kidnappings or natural disasters.

There were two alerts, in fact: a Flash Flood Warning and a Severe Thunderstorm Warning. I don’t worry too much about floods where we live (though I realize a flash flood is different), and although the skies had definitely darkened considerably, it wasn’t even raining yet at our house.

We took a look at the weather maps, saw a bright patch of red and orange heading our way, and decided we’d better hurry off to the park to pick up the kids. It looked like we had about 20-30 minutes before the storm would hit.

Turns out, it was just a little bit less than that.

By the time we backed the car out of the garage at about 7:45, it had started raining, and by the time we had gone the mile to Lake Hiawatha (calculating that they had either canceled their plans to go to Lake Nokomis, or that they would have already returned by now) the torrents were unleashed and the trees were whipping in the wind.

We were drenched as we ran to the door of the park building. Locked. No one inside. Damn. They were at Lake Nokomis after all.

The storm was coming on fast, so we ran back to the car and prepared to high-tail it to Lake Nokomis, a trip that was made considerably longer by the fact that the main street between the two parks, 28th Avenue, has been torn up for weeks while CenterPoint installs new gas lines.

But that didn’t really matter. By the time we had gone a block and a half from the park, cars ahead of us at the intersection of 42nd Street abruptly stopped. Cars going on 42nd Street were stopped too, pointing in various unexpected directions.

Then, I saw it. Just ahead on the next block, a large piece of a tree — larger than the small Prius we were driving in, in fact — flew across the street about 20 feet in the air. I looked down 42nd Street and saw more trees down in the road.

Cars around us were stopped, but I had no intention of staying there! I carefully made my way around the obstacles — stopped vehicles and giant tree limbs — and drove on another block. I turned and raced down 41st Street. At least I think it was 41st Street. I wasn’t really taking the time to look.

28th Avenue was still under construction at that point, not that it would have mattered, because half a block away a giant tree was downed on top of the construction equipment, blocking the entire street.

I went on another block, and then another, turning down streets and then turning back as one street after another became impassable. All the while I was looking up, trying to make sure nothing was about to fall on us.

At one point we arrived at a dead-end street that we thought was a street some friends of ours live on, and we prepared to go to their door, but it wasn’t their street after all, so we turned back.

Beginning to panic, we considered going to the door of one of the houses in the area that had lights on, but it didn’t seem like the right choice. While I was sure (or at least hopeful) they’d take us in, then what? Our car might have a tree land on it; we might be stuck there. Then how would we get to the kids once the storm passed?

Somehow having gotten to this point without colliding with another car, flying trees, or getting a flat tire from driving over all of the debris, I noticed we were by a school. What school, I wasn’t quite sure, and didn’t care to figure out. I realized in an instant that we were on the side of the building sheltered from the storm, and that there were no trees around. So I raced across the school’s parking lot, up near the building, where I found a small, fenced-in alcove where a number of other cars were parked. We drove through the open gate and I tucked the car into a corner.

And we waited.

We were wet, and cold, and shivering more from fear than from anything else. We turned on the radio, and listened as the announcers cracked jokes about the irony of how the storm was making it so dark on the longest day of the year.

“Sure,” I thought. “You’re comfortable and safe in your studio in downtown St. Paul. You have no idea what it’s like to be in the middle of this.”

We turned the radio off.

We checked our weather apps. We wanted to call the park, or hoped they’d call us, but in our haste to leave home SLP had left her phone on the kitchen counter, and it was her number the park staff had. Well, that and my old cell number, which now rings at my office.

At this point I finally pieced together the clues that we must be at Roosevelt High School. I could see the lights of the football field peeking up over the side of the building. I realized that all of the other cars parked around us — empty — in the fenced-in area were neither storm refuge seekers nor school employees’ cars. We were in front of the school’s auto shop.

A few minutes later I heard a roar of an engine behind us. Someone in a black sports car was in the parking lot, squealing tires, racing back and forth, doing donuts. At once I thought both that I wished I was as carefree in the moment as they were, but also that it was idiots like that who go out in these kinds of storms and get themselves hurt or killed. We continued to cower in our little Prius, hazard lights flashing, tucked into our relatively safe little corner by the Roosevelt High School auto shop.

The National Weather Service had issued a Severe Thunderstorm Warning for our area until 8:15. We had about 15 minutes to go. I kept turning around and looking at the large tree across the street from the school, maybe 100 feet away. It was my indicator of the current wind speed. Every time its movements would slow, we’d start to wonder if, despite the still-pounding rain, maybe things had tapered off enough that we could either get home or get to the park to pick up the kids. But before we could act, the tree whipped up into a frenzy again.

So we waited.

Even in my fear and panic, I was still myself. There were two doors to the school, a few feet from each other, directly in front of us, numbered 11 and 12. I noticed, and pointed out to SLP, that the “11” was in Arial and the “12” was in Helvetica. It’s the ones. I hate how ones look in Arial. I was ready to take a picture of it to post on Instagram, but I thought better of it. SLP was shaking and upset — and so was I — and I think there was maybe even a brief flash in my mind of, “What if the worst happens to us tonight? Is this really the last statement I’d want to leave the world?”

At one point the weather seemed to have calmed enough that we could leave, but as soon as I turned the corner and was beyond the protective wall of the school, we realized that this was not over.

8:15 finally came, but the weather didn’t seem done with us yet, so we waited a few more minutes. At 8:20 we finally pulled out of the parking lot and headed towards… well, where should we go? And where could we go? We debated going home and waiting out the rest of the storm, or going to Lake Nokomis to find the kids.

We decided that we needed to go home first, because who knew if this was over, whether we’d even be able to get to the kids, etc. We knew the kids were far safer in a fallout-shelter-grade Minneapolis park building than we were in our car. I was also hoping the park staff might have left a message for us on SLP’s phone, and I wanted to at least be able to get word to them that we were OK.

I managed to navigate by a circuitous and mildly treacherous route back to 42nd Street, where this all had begun for us. In addition to the large branches blocking part or all of some streets, we noticed several uprooted trees, tipped against buildings. All of the construction signs on 28th Avenue were flattened. 42nd Street itself was relatively clear, so we got back to 34th Avenue and headed towards our house. At one point I had to accelerate and pass someone who apparently was out for a leisurely drive. As we turned onto Minnehaha Parkway, we noticed more damage, although not as bad as what we had seen a half mile to the north, until we got to the house on the corner of our street and noticed its front boulevard tree, a very large, old tree, was uprooted and on the house. At least the house appeared not to have sustained much damage, but something this close to our house? What did that mean for us?

We were lucky. We had a few large tree branches down on our driveway, but our trees were still standing and our house was intact. We got out of the car and cleared a path to the garage, parked the car and ran into the house.

I checked SLP’s phone. Two messages from the park staff, one of which had been left within a minute of us leaving the house. I called the park and let them know we were OK — and exactly what had ensued over the past 45 minutes — and that we were on our way.

I elected to take 50th Street to Lake Nokomis and loop around the back of the park building, and I’ve never so greatly exceeded the speed limit on 50th Street in my life. We were at the park within 3 minutes, and I was glad I’d taken the route I had. Just to the west, the parkway was blocked completely by a large tree, and there were a few uprooted trees in the park by the building where the kids were waiting for us. I’m not sure we’d have even been able to get through if we’d gone another way.

We ran into the building, embraced the kids, and realized that neither they nor the park staff, who greeted us with smiles and laughter, had any idea of the extent of what had just happened, nor what it felt like to witness it through a car windshield.

We rushed the kids into the car and raced back home. More storms were on the way, we had seen, and we weren’t about to repeat the last hour.

At 8:45, we were home. It was over. Barely more than an hour had passed, but it’s an hour that will be burned into my memory for years to come.

I know now just how lucky we were. We were in the middle of the storm’s path of destruction, as it was happening, in a tiny car. We’re safe, our car is fine, our house is unscathed. Many others in the city and the surrounding metro area weren’t so lucky. I haven’t heard any reports of deaths or injuries, but there’s plenty of damage, and hundreds of thousands of people were without power for at least part of the night. There were gas leaks and fires.

And there were tireless and fearless first responders — police, firefighters and EMTs — not to mention crews from Xcel and CenterPoint who were on the scene restoring power and fixing gas lines. I have rarely had more appreciation for their dedication and courage than I did last night.

This morning, SLP and I took a walk around our neighborhood to survey the damage. Our neighborhood was lucky… the damage was significantly worse about a mile to the north, and also farther to the east. But these photos show how bad it was even within a half mile of us.