I attended my first WordCamp US this year and it was great!
WCUS 2023 was held in National Harbor, Maryland. It was my first time visiting the DC area.
DC is such a well documented and important city that I felt like I knew exactly what to expect and it delivered. Basically to the extent that my own personal experiences feel a little trite given the vast amount that has already been written about the city.
So I’ll forego the usual travel blog and jump right to the talks.
Videos of the talks have just been posted online (full playlist).
Here are my highlights
The WordPress Playground has existed for a little while now and it’s one of those things I filled away in my mind to check out later.
It is absolutely incredible.
It’s literally a copy of WordPress running PHP in your browser! It’s not a virtual machine you’re remote desktop-ing into, it’s actually running in your browser! There’s a tonne of potential applications.
Easily one of the best talks on any subject that I’ve ever seen. It’s fun and you might even learn something.
Two talks I am putting under the “war stories” slash “how we built this really cool thing” category.
If you’ve ever worked on client projects I think you’ll find these two talks validating.
The Thursday before the event was set aside for “contributor day.”
Essentially, anyone interested working on WordPress itself could break into small groups to contribute to a specific area of the project (be it core, documentation, infrastructure, etc.). Apparently, at previous WordCamps the contributor day was held after the main conference when everyone was tired/hungover. The day before definitely seems like the right choice to me.
I fell in with the group making a renewed push for a core fields API.
Alternate Title: Fuck North Dakota and their bullshit. Let’s do our cross-border shopping in Bemidji!
For the uninitiated, it’s quite common for Winnipeggers to take weekend trips to Grand Forks or Fargo, North Dakota to stock up on weird American junk food variations not available in Canada, cheap booze and (historically) good deals on just about everything (more on this later).
Pre-COVID my family would typically do one or two road trips down there every year just as a little weekend getaway. Often at the end of August to stock up on school supplies and clothes; that sort of thing. COVID killed this tradition.
It’s located under 400km southeast of Winnipeg, in north-central Minnesota. It’s not a place that I’ve ever heard many Winnipeggers talk about visiting. The last time I’ve ever heard anyone mention it might have been a band trip in grade 8.
So, when Odessa and I were first talking about this trip I didn’t have the highest of hopes. Bemidji is less than half the population of Grand Forks (a 10th Fargo) and well outside any major centre. I was picturing something like a Steinbach or Altona, except with more American flags.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Bemidji is one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited.
The drive ahead didn’t hold much appeal for me. Endless hours on an undivided two-lane highway is something I strongly dislike. In fact, it’s the main reason I’ve always avoided visiting this particular area of Minnesota.
Another concern I had was the potential lack of amenities typically found on Interstate Highways. In Manitoba, secondary highways like this tend to be quite desolate. It’s not uncommon for gas stations and businesses to be closed when you need them due to the scarcity of towns along the way.
To my surprise, however, this region seems to have a small villages every 30 or 45 minutes. And to top it off, these places are actually open for business! It was a type of “rural” that we don’t really have in many part of Manitoba.
The roads themselves where nearly empty and the scenery was a little more varied than the flat plains of Manitoba and North Dakota. I don’t think we saw more than a handful of cars between St Malo, MB and Thief River Falls, MN which lead to an entirely stress-free drive..
10 out of 10, would drive again.
Bemidji is not quite like anywhere I’ve ever been before.
The people were incredibly friendly. Every single encounter I had with a stranger was more pleasant than anything I’ve experienced at home. I chatted with one lady in the Paul Bunyan Park parking lot and she was so happy to see Canadians down for a visit!
It’s part tourist town. Almost like a Jasper or Banff, except more low-key and chill. There are several beaches right in town. And plenty of camping near by.
The downtown has a bunch of great looking bar & grill type restaurants. More than I would think a town of under 20,000 would be able to support.
Speaking of their downtown, it’s declined like every other downtown in North America. The once grand department stores, theatres, shops, etc are no more. But unlike elsewhere, they’ve not dead.
Every vacant retail space seems to house an antique or thrift store. Or what I would describe as an “indoor yard sale.”
It’s also part college town. Bemidji State University hosts about 5000 students. Not huge but I’d bet this goes a long way to support those restaurants and bar; and the national brands like Target and Walmart.
If you’re thinking of a road trip down the the US this summer definitely consider Bemidji.
P.S. On Cross-Border Shopping In 2023
Now, the question of whether you should take a cross-border shopping trip is a different story.
In short, in the current economic climate of near-hyper inflation, it’s basically not worth it.
Ten or twenty years ago, you could get a good deal on plenty of things: clothes, video games, electronics, food, books, and just about everything else – even when factoring in the exchange rate of the weaker Canadian Dollar.
Basically the only things that are still cheaper are gas and booze. That’s it.
Eating out is extremely expensive.
The grande ice shaken espresso I ordered at Starbucks was $6.06 on the US menu or roughly $8.50 CAD. On the Canadian menu, it’s only $6.56 (or US$5).
Four meals at nearly any fast food chain will run you >CA$50.
Even groceries and household goods are more expensive down there now. I made a point of taking a look at the prices of things like toilet paper, cat litter, chips, pop, and other things I regularly buy at the grocery store. The sticker prices were all the same or higher than down here. In other words, roughly 30% more expensive when converted to Canadian dollars.
So essentially, the only reason to cross-border shop in 2023 is for access to variety. You want 85 different flavours of Mountain Dew, they’ve got it. Better selection of “better” clothes for the same price, yup sure.
But that’s about it. At least for now. Hopefully things go back to normal if/when inflation ever settles down.
But until then, exploring our own backyards is a better use of our dollars.
Last week I took an extended weekend off to drive down to the Twin Cities with my family, for the first time in almost exactly 3 years. Ever since we started going down there for punk shows (long before Odessa and I were married) we have made it a habit to trek down at least once per year.
The title of this post is a reference to Chuck Klosterman’s latest book “The Nineties” which we listened on the way there and back. Klosterman audiobooks have become as much of a tradition as the trip itself. Something about the combination of his comic-book-guy-from-the-simpsons delivery plus the fact that we are literally driving through the setting of some of his anecdotes is just so perfect.
In all seriousness though, between the events of January 6th, the presidency preceding it, and the George Floyd protests in the Twin Cities I was bracing for the worst. I expected to arrive in a country where my affiliations would be questioned every time I wanted to use a restroom, a political zealot yelling on every street corner and just general chaos.
But for the most part, everything was normal, like it had been previous years.
So Many Flavours of Mountain Dew
For many Canadians, trips across the border are a bit like visiting a giant Theme Park of Capitalism or maybe walking into r/latestagecapitalism. We simultaneous gawk at the sheer audacity of all the different things we can buy while buying as many of the things as we can possibly buy.
The varieties of Mountain Dew are a prime example a running joke even. [Up in these parts we typically have 3 flavours of Mountain Dew: regular, diet and a rotating cast of alternates (code red, blue shock, that new black one, etc)]
Well I’m happy(?) to report that the state of the world has not affected the junk food shelf. Not only that but the US consumerist machine has managed to find dozens of flavours of everything! Doritos, caned coffee, beef jerky, beyond meat jerky, skittles… you get the picture.
On Apple Pay and Tap
A quick note on Apple Pay.
I was pleasantly surprised that tap payment was available literally everywhere. This was not at all the case 3 years ago — chip&PIN was not even readily available.
That said most cashiers acted like I was one of the first people they’d ever seen actually using my phone to pay.
In the face of a mostly normal visit, the effects of inflation seemed a lot more real down there. Even though the inflation rate is only about 1% higher.
For one, nothing is cheap anymore, especially food. Even though the relatively exchange rates have remain roughly the same (30%, ±5%) for the 20 odd years I’ve been visiting The States you could always count on cheap fast food. Even after currency exchange.
And I’m not really sure any of the clothes and other stuff we bought is significantly cheaper like it used to be. Ohdessa did some on-the-fly comparison shopping vs the Canadian websites and often found similar to cheaper pricing on the .ca.
I bought new shoes out of compulsion.
Actually, gas is still cheap. About CA$0.30/L less (US$0.92/gal).
The most striking economic indicator was the WE’RE HIRING signs literally everywhere! The sign to the left is from a Walmart in Fergus Falls, North Dakota — a state with a $7.25 minimum wage. A Taco Bell in Fargo, ND was advertising a $500 signing bonus! $1500 bonus to start on as a mall cop at the Mall of America (salary not listed).
Not coincidentally, the McDonalds we visited that was not boasting of above minimum wage was so short staffed that the shift manager apologized about the wait to every single customer.
[N.B. Some of these posting might be total compensation (including things like healthcare) but are likely to still be multiples of the minimum wage.]
To counter-balance the kind of icky consumer tourism aspect of these trips, we always try to hit up some art galleries. The Twin Cities have a great art scene!
We were able to check out Piotr Szyhalski’s COVID-19: Labor Camp Report. I am not good at describing art so I will just say that this is the most incredible art exhibit I have ever seen. The dystopian posters, the performance, the orchestra. Such amaze!
The Fairfield Inn by Marriott in Mendota Heights, Minnesota kinda sucks.
During my stay in pre-COVID Finland in Feburary I participated in far to many nights of cycle-based pub crawling for a man of my vintage. One night we checked out a local pub called Ravintola House (Restaurant House?) a minutes from our place Pateniemi.
We arrived early for a midnight performance of Kulmakunnan Kutkuttajat. As the regulars started to trickle in the DJ played typical euro-dance-esque. For a few rounds Aura (or was it Karhu) none of the music piqued my interest in particular. IIRC Canada’s own Len made an appearance on the playlist.
Then the Venga Bus showed up and when it drove off suddenly the music took a distinctly tropical turn. It was the last thing I expected, I was so blown away I quickly downloaded Shazam and let it log the playlist for the next hour.
Today I finally transcribed that playlist into Spotify.
You can’t not to chair dance while you give this a listen. Read on for my thoughts, supplementary research findings and ratings.
R3HAB x A Touch Of Class – All Around The World (La La La)
In retrospect, I’m not sure if my Shazam log caught the entire set or when exactly it kicked in, there’s nothing particularly out of place or samba-influenced about this one.
Often when I’m working on code in the evening I’ll throw on an EDM festival live set and this one seems to be a staple banger. I assume it’s popular with the kids.
If the audience wasn’t primarily middle-aged Finnish rock fans and instead college-aged flower lei fans this would be have been totally expected
Verdict: 4/5 – It’s catchy.
Arash feat Sean Paul – She Makes Me Go
Arash is a Swedish Iranian singer who represented Azerbaijan at Eurovision 2009 because wut?!
Sean Paul must have the world’s most terrible yet recognizable voice. I can’t stand Sean Paul.
Suffice to say I was not expecting to hear Mr Paul 9000km from Jamaica. I wonder if you’re random pop star in a non-English-speaking country, can you just hire Sean Paul to appear on your track?
Verdict: 0/5 – I hate Sean Paul.
Madcon – Glow
I assumed this was some Will.i.am produced project that just never heard of before. It’s got that inoffensive 2010s vaguely electronically, rappy formula that Will.i.am has repeated dozens of times. But Madcon is totally Swedish and as far as I can tell, no will.i.am involved. Though they were most certainly “influenced” by him on this album.
Their claim to fame appears to be touring with Gang Starr in the 90s. I gave 2010s Contraband a list, it’s decent.
Adelén – Bombo
I cannot stop listening to this track. ABSOLUTE BANGER!
Adelén is a Norwegian latin pop singer. It’s an English song with an Spanish hook because European are doing absolutely everything they can to prove that borders are meaningless.
P.S.S. Wait, is this a Zumba song? That might explain everything. I don’t care I still love it. Maybe I should try Zumba.
Tones and I – Dance Monkey
This one is popular with the tik-tok-set worldwide. The first time I heard it I thought it was decent. But it’s one of those one hit wonders that relies heavily on repetition and get stale quick.
Verdict: 2/5 – meh.
Mr. President – Coco Jamboo
If I had watched Electric Circus in 1996 I am pretty sure Monika Deol would have played this one every week. But I definitely didn’t watch that. Nope.
Song was the most blatant Ace Of Base imitator of 1996. But it’s tropical reggae fusion beat fits right in with this set. Amazingly.
Verdict: 3/5 (+1 because it was snowing outside).
Eppu Normaali – Vuonna ’85
I wonder if Finland has a CanCon-esque regulation that requires clubs to play a certain amount of Finnish music. Because that track was totally out of place in the set.
Wikipedia lists them as a punk band and I was pretty excited to check out some 80s Finnish punk. Unfortunately this track is the only cut on 1985’s Kahdeksas Ihme that’s vaguely punk. As a standalone it’s catchy.
Verdict: 4/5 (+1 for that weird 80s stereo vocals thing).
Hausmylly – Ikävä Lokakuu
Verdict: 0/5 – Bad 90s eurotrash.
Anssi Kela – 1972
Kela seems to be a big deal in Suomi. His debut album sold 150,000 copies which seems huge. The video for this song has over 2.6M views.
1972 starts out strong with a soft Les Paul and softer drums, an intro that wouldn’t be out of place in mid-00s emo. For a moment I excitedly thought “oh, have i stumbled on Finnish emo?!”
Unfortunately the chorus proves I am totally wrong and this is just standard “rock.” I gave the rest of the album a listen, but nope, no emo to be found.
Back on track with the dancey-dance. I’ve always thought Move Your Body was a more solid track than exceedingly cheesy “blue.” The stronger acid bass ups the banger factor by an order of magnitude. The bridge is more melodic. The string pads suffer a bit from that late 90s thing where SoundBlaster 16 can’t properly reproduce string samples or something. Blah, blah, great track.
Verdict: 5/5 – still holds up.
ICE MC – Think About The Way
I am almost certain that this was another Electric Circus standard. I mean it shouts out Canada after all. The vaguely Reggae styles of Mr MC must have been what earned it a place on this playlist.
Fun Fact – this single was released on the short-lived CD Maxi format.
Verdict: 3/5 – would be better as a happy hardcore remix.
Günther (with The Sunshine Girls) – Teeny Weeny String Bikini
Swedish vocalist + latin influences = the spiritual successor to Bombo. Teen Weeny String Bikini has no redeeming qualities. Dude’s creepy AF voice ruins it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to murder the Carol Baskin of Sweden in a bikini-based feud.
Don Omar feat Lucenzo – Danza Kuduro
Last track on the playlist is legit Latin Pop from Puerto Rico. I recall hearing Danza Kuduro in a few place out and about. Looks like it hit number 1 on every chart in most of Europe (didn’t break top 80 in North America).
It’s a solid banger.
Verdict: 5/5 – Europe is having a real Latin Pop moment and so am I.
I sometime describe myself as “an aspiring cyclist.” I enjoy cycling a lot and recognize all its environmental and health benefits, but unfortunately like most Canadian parents my day-to-day is not very conducive to a cycling-based lifestyle. In Winnipeg, as is the case in most North American cities, the built environment abandoned the bicycle sometime in around the 1950s when we started to replace electric trams with diesel buses. So at best, I can only aspire to be a cyclist.
Earlier this February, I had the pleasure of joining the Counterpoint team in Oulu, Finland for a winter cycling retreat of sorts. Oulu is a city barely south of the Arctic Circle in Northern Finland. It has a population and land area of roughly half that of Winnipeg, yet it boasts and incredible 600km of cycle/pedestrian pathways, including over 100 underpasses. I spent 6 days (logged 100km) exploring the city by bicycle.
In addition the the many underpasses, in the few places where cyclists are required to intersect with a car crossing Oulu’s streetlights are designed to sense cycle traffic and prioritize it by switching the car traffic lights to red. With this system we were able to cycle the 10km from our suburban airbnb to the downtown core without stopping. The cycle path system also includes comprehensive way finding and a west-to-east numbering system making navigation easy, even without Google maps.
Overall it’s an incredibly well designed system, built from the ground up with cycling as a priority. Unlike our systems here where we are largely trying to wedge a cycling network into an environment built for cars.
But unpinning Oulu’s cycling network is something that Winnipeg already has. Something we could adopt in many places around the city without spending massive amounts of money building new infrastructure… two meter wide “sidewalks.”
The quiet suburb of Pateniemi in OuluA random industrial area near the Helsinki Airport in Vantaa
Every single roadway in Oulu (and I can only assume much of Finland) includes a roughly 2 meter wide light traffic right of way along side at least one side of the car/truck right of way.
Have We Been Overthinking Cycling Infrastructure?
Dedicated protected bike lanes are great and super important for much of the existing road network that we have in cities like Winnipeg. But they’re also very expensive to build and they’re hard to approve since they often involve disrupting the ever-important car. Thing is, in my entire time in Finland I didn’t encounter a single “bike lane.” I’m not sure they actually have any.
And when I got in to my car for the first time after getting back and drove down Ness avenue, it immediately hit me! We already have wide sidewalks all over the city! We are just using them poorly.
Cycling On The Sidewalk
Under current city bylaws it is technically illegal for adults to cycle on the sidewalk. Many parts of the city have <1m wide sidewalks and on those narrow sidewalks it’s understandable, they’re not really wide enough for a cyclist to share with a pedestrian.
Unfortunately, this regulation sends a strange message that bikes are dangerous and completely sidesteps the real problem of sidewalks that are much too narrow.
I’d propose changing this legislation to allow for wider sidewalks to be designated shared pedestrian and cycling pathways. Explicitly, with well placed signage and a proper public awareness campaign. (Oh and while we’re at it get rid of those lame no skateboarding laws too!)
Examples of Poor Use of Space
Much of Ness Avenue has wider than average sidewalks. For some reason the utility poles and signage is in the middle of the sidewalk! Move that junk to the outside edge and suddenly you have cycling infrastructure on Ness! For much lower cost than ripping up the street and building some bike lanes.
Portage Avenue has sidewalks that would be plenty wide for cyclists to share with pedestrians, if it wasn’t for all the random garbage cans, no parking signs and other junk. Moving those out of the way would cost nothing at all. Perhaps we’d need some new regulation to explicitly describe how we are allowed this space. But do that and suddenly we have cycling infrastructure down portage!
Similar story on Southbound Henderson Highway. The sidewalk is plenty wide, but it has all kinds of random, no-sidewalk junk all over the place. Get rid of that junk and SUDDENLY WE HAVE FREE CYCLING INFRASTRUCTURE!
Conclusion: Just Do It
I’m sure I could find many many more examples like these around the city. I seem to recall the city “upgrading” these sidewalks a couple of decades ago so that they could stop replacing grass that was destroyed by the road salt every winter.
A couple of simple bylaw changes and relatively small scale projects to move a couple of light posts and garbage cans and suddenly we’ve unlocked kilometers of cycle paths.
I’m not saying we don’t need dedicated bike lanes and active transportation paths through our beautiful forest. I am just saying that if we see those as the only solutions, we are making the problem more difficult and costly than it needs to be.