Let them eat limes

I walked through WalMart yesterday, just for nostalgia/ entertainment. Of course NZ has the Warehouse, but you could put four Warehouse stores in a decent sized WalMart.

Everything in NZ is expensive for whatever set of reasons. And if that’s part of the price of paradise, we’re happy to pay. But still… here’s some things that are irksomely dear in Aotearoa… and we don’t really know why since they are grown locally.

These next two are easier to understand… American products have to be imported. But still.

Bringing the news to life

We still read the Brattleboro Reformer online. It is fun to be here and see some of the big stories IRL.

The newly hired Town Manager came in intending to shake things up. One of the biggest impacts of his tenure was to change the town’s ambulance services provider from Rescue Inc. to Gold Cross. Big uproar.

Shortly after, on the job just a few months, that new Town Manager quit to take a job in the neighboring town where Gold Cross is headquartered. More uproar.

Here’s two big stories in one… I’m sitting in stupid traffic on the old bridge, and looking over at construction of the new bridge.

This mural is getting a lot of press. It is just being painted — there was a whole crew working on it yesterday — on the previously ugly and graffitied retaining wall in front of the house we used to own.

Same but different

This is the sweetening setup at a Starbucks in Baltimore.

I don’t know if this is actually or exhaustively true, but… I don’t think you’d ever see three different fake sugars in NZ, and I think you’d always see raw sugar there.

And related… although this place has wooden coffee stirrers, on this trip I have been reintroduced to the hell that is the little tiny plastic stirrers that don’t actually stir. I had blocked those right out of my memory.

Can you go home again?

I’ve been in Brattleboro for a day and a half.

I can still see why I was so enchanted with the place when I first arrived a dozen years ago. Knowing what I know now, I might look a bit more critically at the crumbling infrastructure and the hard cold demographic facts. But still: what a cool place!

The picture above is emblematic of one aspect of Brattleboro’s trajectory. When we lived here, that building was a Baptist church struggling to survive. They sold their Tiffany windows to pay the costs of running the winter homeless shelter and finally sold the building.

It’s now home to Epsilon Spires, an outfit that aims to blend art and music with science and conversation to create a sustainable society. Does any of that make sense? Only time will tell, and I do wish them good luck in their attempts.

Zounds grate two mi

This little walkway in a park along Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is peppered with homophones. Fun!

I like this bottom one especially because in NZ they sound even more alike. In swim practice we sometimes use a “pull buoy” to float the legs and focus on just the arms. So when the coach calls out for people to put the “pool boy” between their legs I can’t help but snigger. Heard it a hundred times. Still funny.

Baltimore Remembers

After my initial encounter with the Heritage Walk and its poorly translated attempt at inclusivity, I found several of the sites on the itinerary.

The Holocaust Memorial has a bunch of descriptive text on plaques, but the Santayana quote on the statue’s base sums it up: THOSE WHO CANNOT REMEMBER THE PAST ARE CONDEMNED TO REPEAT IT.

Irreverently, I couldn’t help but notice that the gravel areas under those trees… probably intended to evoke a railroad siding where the death trains pulled up… would make a great pétanque ground.

The Katyn Massacre Memorial. An event I knew nothing about. See ‘condemned to repeat it’ above.

The house where the actual Star-Spangled Banner was made.


That’s a couple of workers gawking and taking pictures of a bunch of rats in the alley.

Baltimore has been a shock, there’s no question. I’ve spent the last five years in one of the most livable cities in the world. Baltimore is , I would guess, quite a ways down that list. The potholes. The overflowing dumpsters. Whole blocks of retail boarded up and falling down. Even on the waterfront most of the shops are empty. And I’ve noticed that there isn’t a crane visible anywhere… they’re not building anything in this downtown area.

The people are struggling as well. I’ve seen so many homeless people shambling around. People with terrible health problems picking in the gutters for cigarette butts. And even the people I interacted with as a business traveler… workers in restaurants and the hotel, cab drivers… seemed dispirited or angry or just out of it. I’ve recently celebrated a birthday, so I’m even older and therefore even grumpier about the shortcomings of the next generation… but still, this seemed extreme.

And yes, I sat at an outdoor restaurant the other night and watched the rats scurrying back and forth, and I’ve seen them two other times just out and about.

I have no idea how much of this trouble is COVID, but I’m sure it’s been a factor. But even before COVID, Baltimore was known as a tough place. It calls itself The Charm City, but some powerful magic charms are surely needed.

The student becomes the teacher

I was so proud to see my friend and longtime colleague Carol awarded Volunteer of the Year yesterday. I’m a little fuzzy on exactly who shares this honor with me, but I get at least some of the credit for hiring her into her first post-grad school job. 20 years ago!! I’ve learned a lot from her, and I can only hope I’ve contributed something to her over the years… at least some things to NOT do.

The project that catapulted her to this dizzy height was a 3-year (!) effort to define an inclusive and affirming set of gender codes. Now, there’s a standard way to record a meaningful gender in the medical record for all those people who used to be lumped into “Other”. High profile, sensitive, contentious… you can see how steering that ship earns you an award.

Well done Carol!!

Some manhole covers and a plaque

The two above were on the (lovely) Rice University campus, where I wandered around while my overachieving niece was helping the next crop of MBA students get ready for a job fair.

And here’s a nice welcome to Baltimore… the airport has its own manhole covers.

The one below had me stumped, but it turns out that it’s a marker on the Baltimore Heritage Trail, and there are many languages represented. According to a grumpy Reddit thread, the Arabic is backwards and otherwise wrong, and plaques in other languages are similarly bad.

If you walked away for five or ten years and came back…

This week I’m back in familiar and comfortable grounds at a data standards meeting. It’s been about six years since I was at one of these, but before that I attended three to five meetings like this each year for a dozen years or more. Different cities, different hotels, but a very carefully homogenized experience so the work proceeds with minimal distraction.

Standards development work is hard, and it’s tedious. The academic, corporate and government stakeholders — from 23 countries at the meeting I’m at today — have conflicting agendas. The people attracted to this kind of work, by its nature and its culture, are thoughtful at best, and can be obstructively pedantic when not at their best. They (we) are all experts, and there is plenty of preening and hierarchy-establishing that has to go on. In many cases when there are two alpha dogs in the room it means the formation of a new committee to go in a slightly different direction. And standards-related work usually falls under “other duties as assigned”, so things only happen when they happen.

Despite all that, work gets done, and good work. Sometimes a person or a team pushes a little harder and there’s a breakthrough. Sometimes there’s an infusion of corporate or government money that advances some portion of the work. And everyone else keeps plugging away.

As a returnee, I commented that I could walk into a room years later and pick up on a conversation as if I’d never left. It turns out I was hardly the first to observe that. Sitting at the bar last night (another important component of these meetings that just might slow down our progress), a group of us riffed on that idea with much hilarity… although thinking about it now, sober, it’s not quite as funny.

So… I guess it works like any other community. Like an electorate. Like a family. Should it be better, smoother? Of course, and when we were new, or young, or both, we knew exactly how to fix everything that irked us. But now, older and wiser, we live much closer to the serenity prayer.

Hello again! It’s great to be back. I want to hear more about your son’s graduation. Yes, let’s catch up at the Wednesday night dinner function and — hopefully — the January meeting. Let’s see, is it Orlando or Vegas next time?

The most important meal of the day

I asked my Houston family to help me eat my fill of the stuff I can’t get in NZ. We had a BBQ lunch and a Mexican dinner with all the trimmings. Both were wonderful.

But this was the (quantity) highlight, breakfast the next day. A chicken-fried steak the size of a dinner plate, 3 eggs, a pile of hash browns and a biscuit as big as 4 biscuits. Gravy. More gravy. And all for less $$ than a small Auckland breakfast.

It tasted just right, and I’m both proud and ashamed to say that I ate most of it. Thanks, Frank and Monique, for letting me hang on to my Texas breakfast stereotypes… even though you guys don’t actually eat like that. Itch scratched 😋.

Watch this space

A few months ago, Swatch and Omega struck marketing gold with the release of the MoonSwatch.

My buddy Paul is a watch guy, and owns a real moon watch and so therefore he wanted one of these. They’re only available in Swatch stores, and there aren’t any of those in NZ. But I was going to Sydney the weekend after the release, so he asked me to try and find one.

Ha! No way, lines out the door, sold out in minutes around the world.

Somehow in this process I got to wanting one too. There’s a Mars one, so ok I’m in.

Last week I happened to be near enough to a Swatch store (in Houston) to try again. It’s been months, and they claim it’s not a limited edition, so now that the hype has died…

Ha! Dream on. We might be going to mars before I get my hands on one of these watches.

The end of an era?

Remember the awful times 2 1/2 years ago when hand sanitizer and masks were out of stock everywhere?

Then things got better, gradually and unevenly. Over the last few months we’ve come to the point that a box of masks sits at the front desk… or in this case on a chair by the elevator. And the supermarket was literally giving away quart-size bottles of hand sanitizer last week… help yourself.

I’m reminded of Peter Senge’s classic book The Fifth Discipline, in which he illustrates the importance of systems thinking via the Beer Game. Here we are suddenly awash in all the unfulfilled orders we kept increasing during the lean times.

All other things being equal, I’d prefer beer.

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