Tuesday, January 30, 2007

m&ms, part two: the end of an economy

The office was a little quieter today. Friday was the last day for the guy who sat across the hall from me. Besides being a good worker and all-round nice guy, he was the keeper of the m&ms.

He had a couple of those plastic m&ms dispensers, shaped like the characters from the ads. When someone pressed the lever, they dispensed a modest handful of candy. One had plain and one had peanut.

I didn't partake very often, perhaps half a dozen times, or less, in the six or so months I sat opposite him. I'd like to claim superior willpower, but the real reason was that they were up a bit too high for me to reach with decorum, and without dumping m&ms all over.

I did have an excellent view of them, though, and I noticed some rather interesting things. Somebody trained in economics or sociology could probably write a better thesis on the subject, but for now, just a few observations.

A few people partook occasionally, only when reminded of it. Certain people in the office went out of their way, even coming from different buildings to wander by and get their fix, especially as the afternoons wore on. Some just wandered up and grabbed; others partook furtively when they thought nobody was looking. Some, in between these extremes, grabbed their handfuls and made excuses. Regardless of the plunderers' style, it was probably well worth the few dollars my coworker invested, simply for the traffic and conversation starter it offered.

The m&ms had their own little, sugar-coated economy, too. The owner of these dispensers encouraged and badgered and cajoled frequent takers to contribute a bag of m&ms. Some did. Some holdouts continued to munch with nary a contribution and not much reserve. It was a telling (if basic) glimpse of ethics and honesty on the honor system.

Finally, for the Skinner fans out there, I should note that there were plenty of folks wandering past muttering about "no more m&ms" today, in a classic case of an "extinction burst". Conditioning still works, and for what it's worth, the pellets were really tasty.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

m&ms, part one: surprise!

On the way out the door this morning, closer to late than I'd have preferred, I found my trail mix container, empty. (I mix my own because it's cheaper and I don't have to put sunflower seeds or raisins in it. The recipe, if anyone cares, is roughly equal parts dried cherries, peanuts, almonds, and m&ms.)

So I picked up the sack of m&ms in my cabinet. It is supposed to zip closed, but it must not have closed completely, last time, and so out poured hundreds of m&ms, onto the shelf in my pantry. It was behind some other things, so I heard them more than I saw them spill.

I left them there and did without trail mix today. I picked them up this evening, dusted them off just a bit, and tossed them back in the bag. I made sure to close it more carefully, this time.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Living with engineers

This scene greeted me on my breakfast table this morning. I did help to create it, but I was by no means alone. The glass beads are supposed to be in that bowl (some still are), where they look attractive glimmering in the candlelight. Or, they can be arranged on the table, thus.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What I'm reading

For the past year or so, I have making a somewhat more concerted effort than any since high school to learn Spanish again. With the kind and patient help of a friend in Bolivia I have been making slow but steady progress. I've also been seeking out opportunities to read and hear Spanish, translating various wiki articles (with more success translating out of Spanish than into it), listening to the radio, and so on.

A week ago I went to the library and got a book in Spanish, for reading practice. This is not the first book I've read in Spanish. (I've read one and a half others, so far). Despite being short with largish print, the present volume is proving a challenge. Spanish literature often incorporates something called Magic realism, employing fanciful metaphorical or symbolic elements that range from supernormal to surreal. This particular book (Bestiario, by Julio Cortázar), it seems, has lots and lots of this quality, and it makes for confusing, slow reading for one who is also new to the language. What follows is my translation of a short excerpt from the book, demonstrating how odd the book is and how many words I am still missing. (The missing words are decently specific, and I'm not troubled about lacking them just now. In a new language one learns common words like "airport" far sooner than rarer words like "tremble" or "hoarse". I tend not to pause to look up each of these terms in a dictionary unless I am lost because I can get many from context and get the gist without them. Also, it would take too long, and I would prefer to learn the language as much as possible on my own terms.)

When I feel as though I will vomit a somethingflower [conejito], I place two fingers in my mouth like an open (claw?) and I wait to feel in the throat the something something that rises like an effervesence of fruity salts. Everything is quick and hygienic, happening in a short instant. I pull the fingers from my mouth and in them I bring the subject ?? a white somethingflower. The somethingflower seems content, it's a normal somethingflower, only very small, small like a chocolate somethingflower but white and entirely a somethingflower. I put it in the palm of my hand [...?] caress it with my fingers. The somethingflower seems content to have been born and something something against my skin.

And no, this doesn't make a lot more sense in context or when I look up and verify the missing words. My tactic at the moment is to keep on reading, look up words that are interfering with my understanding of the story overall, and be glad that the book is not very long.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Local trivia

Stevens Creek Boulevard divides Santa Clara from San Jose. It's the main drag, and there are car dealerships on either side. What you may not notice, cruising past the rows of attempts to get your attention, is that Santa Clara and San Jose have different signage ordinances. That means, for instance, that dealerships on the San Jose side may display balloons all week long. Dealerships on the Santa Clara side may only display them on weekends.