Calling the "B" Ark

March 31, 2011 by cynick | Posted in b-ark , saint-paul

I’ve lived in Lowertown for a little over seven years now. During the three years before moving in, I was making regular trips there to witness/oversee the restoration and redevelopment of the historic building I live in.

In all that time, the Mississippi rose above flood stage four or five times (depending on which government bureaucracy you ask). Even though my building is at one of the lowest elevations in the city, it has never flooded, due to an elaborate pumping system in the basement.

This year, something new happened: I received a letter from the city that said I might be required to evacuate, given this year’s forecast for a potentially historic flood.

Wow! That sounded pretty serious! A meeting was scheduled at the Black Dog, presumably so that more details on this possibility could be conveyed to the people in the neighborhood.

And I must say, out of the public meetings I’ve been to, this one was highly attended indeed! Every single person in that room had one question on their minds – under what conditions could we expect a call to evacuate?

Instead of getting an answer to that question, we were treated to a 1.5 hour masterpiece of government non-information and misinformation.

The meeting started with an introduction of all the various people from different departments who were going to speak. This went on and on and on, including thank yous to this and that person for planning the meeting – like an Oscar acceptance speech that’s way past its expiration date.

Then the Power Point slides started rolling. For the first twenty minutes, an historical recap of all flooding in St. Paul. While interesting, this had very little do with what’s happening now.

The crowd began stirring. One woman asked, “This is all well and good, but when will we have to evacuate?”

Response: “I cannot predict any flood timing, I am not a hydrologist.”

Then our “Not a Hydrologist” – who was some suit from the city emergency planning department – proceeded with a presentation of hydrologic data, including the current NOAA hydrologic prediction chart in cubic feet per second vs. time, and historical probabilistic exceedance forecast as well as a deterministic forecast based on current conditions.

Eyes glazed over. When asked the difference between probabilistic and deterministic, the guy said they were different mathematical “theorems”. (?!)

Our “Not a Mathematician” was then asked the same question again, perhaps in more specific terms: Under what conditions would we be forced to evacuate?

For the first time since the meeting began, he tossed out a nugget of new information! He said that the city may be forced to shut down the sewer system, and if that were to happen, we wouldn’t be able to occupy our units.

Great! Under what circumstances would the city shut down the sewer? “I don’t know, I’m not a civil engineer.”

By now, most people had figured out that no information would be forthcoming, except for a woman who piped up to say that she lived on the first floor of the Tilsner, and she was worried that she could be flooded out. A guy nearby rather rudely asked her if she’d been listening at all.

But, I thought, “At last! I can give someone some useful information!” I set about to find the photograph from the record 1965 flood that showed Kellogg Boulevard under a few feet of water, but well below the first floor of the Tilsner. When I showed it to her, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I had found it on the front page of the Tilsner’s own website.

Mention was then made of the possibility of shutting off power. Someone asked whether this could happen block by block or building by building.

“I don’t know, I don’t work for Xcel.”

More things may have been said in the following forty minutes of speakers with important sounding titles – perhaps something about the Humane Society, or something about phone numbers to call – but my mind was far, far away by then.

What Decade Is This?

December 22, 2010 by cynick | Posted in b-ark

I had received what appeared to be a duplicate bill for health services I had already paid for, but this time for a larger dollar amount.

Not wanting Collections People to be sicced on me, I called the billing number on the statement. Mind you, this isn’t some rinky-dink operation, it’s one of the largest hospital/clinic systems in town. (the exact name isn’t relevant to what transpired on the call)

Surprisingly, in fairly short order I got an actual human on the phone.

I told my story; the following dialog ensued, and I admit, my voice may have risen just a tad as it went on.

“Are you just making up new charges as you go along?” “The latest statement covers the whole episode, but is asking for the amount, $133, that you haven’t yet paid.” “Oh, but I surely did pay it!” “I’m sorry, we don’t have any record of any payment for this statement. You’ll have to send us a copy of your check to prove that you paid.”

Now! I know very well that the O.J. Trial proved that you can’t necessarily know the race of a person just by hearing their voice on a POTS line, but what about their age?

I’m sorry Grandma, but what is a.. check ? “It wouldn’t have been a check, it would have been by credit card.” “Then send us a copy of your credit card statement.” “Sure, great, can you give me an email address to send it to?” “Yes, send it to .com”

Huh? It sounded like maybe they had a special domain just for customer inquiries… “Um, okay, what’s the name? The user name?” “The name is ‘’.” “Uh-huh.. That’s nice, but I need an email address.” “That’s .com.”

Are you kidding me? (voice rising) “Yes, but there’s no ‘at’ sign! Where’s the ‘at’ sign? You’ve only given me a domain name!”

She doesn’t know what an email address is! What decade is this?

(sounding confused) “Hold, please, while I try to find out what you’re asking..”

Time went by. I assumed she had thrown me into Hold Purgatory for having the audacity to raise my voice. I had nothing better to do (sure!), so I just hung on the line.

Eventually, she came back, and this time, she proudly gave me something that sounded close to the jumble of words she’d given me in the first place, but this time with a couple of dots and an at-sign at the appropriate places. Wonderful. I was so shocked and amazed by this that I didn’t even write it down before hanging up!

Wow. I’ve spoken frequently against the evils of outsourcing, but it may be merited in this case! I’m guessing that ANY person in a below average, barely-English-speaking Bangalore call center would at least know what an email address is!

The Caper of the Picnic Table

October 31, 2010 by cynick | Posted in b-ark , mundanities

One of the magical things about all of this fancy wireless internet technology is that I can define my “office” to be any terrestrial location I wish.

I have spent a lot of time writing code at historic Bridge 15, a rather odd, asymmetric swing bridge over the Mississippi, built in 1915, and last painted in 1950. The area near the bridge is what I call an “unsanctioned” park: there are no woodchip-laden paths, no interpretive signs, no native prairie grass plantings; only some remains from the distant industrial past.

For over a decade, this area sported a rickety, etched, charred, splintered wreck of a picnic table. It wasn’t tied down to anything; people just used (and abused) it. I was constantly amazed at that table’s ability to survive.

It was my office on many a nice summer day. I would see eagles and trains and boats and ducks, watch the waves wash over the bridge piers – it was nice!

So, I was very saddened when I came back from my road trip last spring to discover that nature had done what humans never finally got around to doing: the table had been washed to the hereafter by the Flood of 2010.

Touched by the fact that the community of the area had supported and protected this table for so very long, I decided I would “give back” by procuring a replacement.

And where would I find such a thing?

I certainly knew of one such splinter factory, sitting behind a converted cut-rate department store building at which a company I formerly worked for had leased space.

Definitely more than a one man job, though. I messaged Shawn, a strapping young lad who used to work with us at that office, and asked whether he was up for some lunchtime larceny.

He was. 12 o’clock noon, I told him.

I showed up there, looking conspicuous, and Shawn arrived soon after with another former colleague, Nikki, along for the ride.

We made quick work of dismantling the table – it was just one o’ those DIY tables from Home Depot that was just as easy to take apart as it was to put together – and loaded it into my truck.

Alas, just as we were closing the gate, suddenly, from out of nowhere, came a small truck driven by what has to be a rare bird in this society: a maintenence man who actually gives a shit about the people he works for.

“What you think you’re doing?!”

“I would have thought that was obvious, we are taking this table.”

“You can’t do that, it belongs to the building!”

“Well, actually, it doesn’t. Do you remember us? WE bought this table for our own enjoyment, after asking building management to put one here for over a year.”

“Oh! you worked for that company that broke its lease, huh? That means the building owns it now!”

“Wrong again! We bought it, but never bothered to be reimbursed for it, so technically, we own it, and since we own it, we are now relocating it to a place where it will be more appreciated.”

The guy seemed to sense that we didn’t look like the kind of people who would make something like that up, but then he asked,

“Do you have a receipt?”

Do I have a receipt. What nonsense! A receipt? Who would I have expected to show it to, the hobos who live under the bridge nearby?

I told Nikki and Shawn to get in. “Let’s go.”

And then: some drama! The guy actually zoomed up and boxed us in so that we couldn’t leave! All of this over $10 worth of kindling!

And then he started talking about calling the cops. They would certainly want to see a receipt.

Just at that moment, the situation got even stranger. The building manager happened to come back from lunch, and came over to where we were.

I knew this guy. I’d talked to him many times, and in fact, one time he gave me some spare baseball tickets.

I thought he’d tell us to go ahead and take it, after I explained my purpose.

Nope, he was up in arms. Apparently, these people were still very mad that they didn’t get their $50K in early lease termination money, and they thought that this picnic table, as an asset of that company, should go toward the money that was owed.

My mind was still reeling over the silliness of that remark, when the building manager said,

“Hey! This table cannot disappear on MY WATCH! This is MY LIFE!”

Whoa! Dude! You mean, your whole freakin’ life would be at stake if we were to drive away with this thing? Who owns this building, anyway? The Irish Mob?

There is no arguing with a person of such pathos. His world must be very small, indeed.

I shook the guy’s hand, and said, “As long as I am alive, this table will not be molested by me, sir! C’mon, Shawn, help me unload the truck!”

We pulled it down, and put it back together. The maintenence man wouldn’t leave until we left.

Sure thing, pal, better make sure we don’t turn around and load it all up again. You know – after you knew who we were, and presumably, after you noted my license plate. Better play it safe. Where would all of the bitter old ladies who worked down the hall at that health services place eat their lunch without it? We drove away from there, our dobbers down. Nikki said, “Wow! I feel totally defeated now!”

Indeed. Except: what kind of idiot tries to pull off such a stunt at 12 o’clock noon, when the internationally accepted time for such shenanigans is 3:30am?

But, I gave the man my word. And Bridge 15 still needs a new table.