Jabber

When instant messaging first hit town, I couldn’t see the point. You could either use it to chat to total strangers (no appeal for me) or with your online buddies (no buddies for me).

This changed somewhat when all but one of my immediate family started to use MSN Messenger, and suddenly we were all more connected across this big country (PEI, Ontario, Vancouver) than we ever had been.

But you can only talk to your family so much, and to really talk to them, you’ve got to use the phone.

The big revelation for me, though, was when my brother Johnny started working for The Company. He’s in Vancouver. I’m in Charlottetown. We needed a way of staying in almost constant touch while he glides his way up the web learning curve. Suddenly instant messaging became a useful business tool.
Powered by Jabber

Which brings me to Jabber. Jabber is an open source instant messaging system. Which means that it’s very configurable, and very easy to take in new directions. If using MSN Messenger is like driving one of those modern cars where you can’t even change the oil yourself, using Jabber is like owning a 1972 Chevy Nova and a really well-stocked toolbox.

One of the really nifty things about Jabber is that it can act like a sort of rosetta stone for the instant messaging world. Using something called “Gateways” in Jabberspeak, you can use a Jabber client to exchange messages with people using MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and ICQ.

Once you start to play around with Jabber a little, you start to see potential applications for it that have little to do with traditional instant messaging. For example, this server is now set up so that if you submit a discussion posting for this item, I’ll get an instant message telling me about it. Obviously there are other similar applications: indeed anywhere there’s a need for some sort of instant notification or alert, the Jabber system can be called into service.

You can learn more about Jabber at jabber.org.

Greenwich

Greenwich Dunes Panorama

The Greenwich Dunes from the boardwalk. Click picture for a bigger version or here for QuickTime VR.


Although I am corporately a part of the Prince Edward Island tourism promotion industry, and thus unlikely to say much of anything negative about the Island and its wonders, please believe me when I say that at your next free moment you should drop everything and go up to the new extension of PEI National Park in Greenwich.

It is an understatement to say that I am not an outdoorsy kind of guy, no matter how much I might aspire to one day be so. I live in an ocean paradise, yet go to the beach only one or twice a year, and reluctantly at that. But today wee Oliver and I needed a field trip, and Oliver [Duncan Lowell]’s namesake Lowell Croken and his wife Cathy sang the praises of Greenwich after their recent visit, so this morning it was off down east for Oliver and I.

Parks Canada has done a fantastic job at creating low-impact visitation system for the Greenwich Dunes. After you leave the interpretation centre, which is at the head of the park just off the road, there are no power lines, no pop machines, and only one [solar-powered] washroom. After you leave the last parking lot, there’s nothing but 4 or 5 miles of trails between you and the ocean.

And what trails they are. Oliver and I took the trail that leads out over a floating boardwalk and ends up cutting through the dunes to the beach. At the risk of sounding like a tourism brochure, the walk is truly spectacular: you start of about 1/4 mile up from St. Peter’s Bay on a trail packed with fine gravel. About 15 minutes later you veer right into the shade of the forest onto a trail that’s less hard-packed, but still suitable for a stroller (or even a wheelchair, I think, if you have strong arms). And finally, after a 10 minute walk through the woods, you emerge at the marsh and walk over the floating boardwalk which carries you out to the dunes where a new-fangled sort of enviro-mesh cuts a trail over to the ocean proper.

The total trip from car to ocean is about a 45 minute walk, and was a reasonable distance to wheel along with Oliver without collapsing or enduring too much fussing. We stopped mid-way over the floating boardwalk (see panorama above) for some water and a jar of mushed carrots. Remember that there are no facilities once you leave the parking lot, so you should be sure to pack enough water and supplies to hold you for an hour and a half of walking in the sun.

Once you reach the ocean you will, dollars to donuts, find yourself alone on a vast expanse of pristine PEI beachfront. The water’s just now about warm enough for swimming, though Oliver and I only waded around and infused ourselves with sand.

The interpretation centre is worth a visit. Although it’s a little pricey — $6 admission for adults, less for kids, free for under age 6 — there’s a really nifty model of the coastline from Morell to Cable Head that sits down 2 feet underground, covered with thick glass panels that let you walk (or crawl, as the case may be) right over it. Otherwise there is the usual sand, dunes, wind and sea propaganda, and a 12 minute slide/tape presentation that hits the usual Mi’kmaq, French, English high/low points. The building itself is well designed, has large clean washrooms, and there’s a pleasant enough gift shop that sells the usual giftiness, but also sells bottled water, sunscreen, and a variety of beach toys.

On your way through St. Peters on the way back, you can marvel at the explosive growth that the small village has undergone (relatively speaking), presumably to serve the eco-tourism trade. There’s a couple of restaurants, places to rent bikes and kayaks, the new Visitor Information Centre and a gas station.

So, now you know; turn off the computer, get in the car, and go see for yourself.

Country Canada

It strikes me as odd that there is seen to be demand in Canada for a television channel with a Saturday night schedule that goes like this:

6:00Country Canada
6:30On the Road Again
7:00Features/Docs

8:00Twin Peaks

9:00Saturday Movie


11:00Harrowsmith
Country Life

Perhaps I underestimate the tastes of rural Canada. Anything to save us from Hockey Night in Canada can’t be all that bad, I suppose.

The Shrinking Hours Paradox

I have seen the hatching and evolution of enough local restaurants in Charlottetown to have noticed a pattern, and that pattern is at the core of what I have just now decided to call the Shrinking Hours Paradox.

Inevitably when a new restaurant opens, the owners, all full of piss and vinegar, decide to set their hours to open very early and close very late. The usual arrangement is something like 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

Do the math: that means being open 16 hours a day.

Because most of these restaurants are family run, and don’t have lots of spare cash to hire employees, and because it really takes the energy of the owners themselves to make a new venture fly, this means either that the owners have to work 16 hours a day or, if they’re a couple, they have to each do an 8 hour shift (which has the unfortunate side-effect of meaning that they never see each other).

Being open from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. is a pretty amazing thing from the customers’ point of view. In essence, for most people, this means that a restaurant is always open. In other words you don’t have to give a lot of thought to when it’s open, you just go there, knowing that it will be open whenever you have the urge.

What happens next is so common that I think its almost inevitable: the owners start to buckle under the strain of being open so much (and, if there are partners involved, they start to hate each other as a result). And, at the same time, the owners start to notice that there are some times of the day that are more popular than others: perhaps there’s a good lunch crowd, but nobody coming in for dinner.

The reaction? The hours start to get cut back. What started off as 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. evolves into 8:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and then, a month later, into 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. And on and on.

On the surface this makes sense: you analyze customer reaction, and place your resources where you need them most. And you help save your sanity at the same time.

But the consequences are often more dire. And therein lies the Paradox.

From a customers’ point of view, as soon as the hours shrink past a certain point, the restaurant shifts from just being always open to being open only some of the time. The problem is that unless you’re a really, really regular customer, it’s hard to keep track of when that only some of the time is, and so, in effect, the restaurant shifts in the customer mind to being probably closed. Or at least gee, they might be closed.

Which is the kiss of death.

Businesses like restaurants, especially local restaurants that depend on a neighbourhood crowd, need to be perceived as being always open. Otherwise, like a cinema that’s closed on Wednesdays, customer confusion about their hours leads to an exponential drop-off in attendance.

Unless the owners are smart, and see this coming, the sad conclusion of the Shrinking Hours Paradox is that customers simply stop coming around because in that 15 second “where should we go out for dinner?” period of intense hunger at 6:30 after a busy workday, there’s no energy left to worry about what’s open and what’s not. Customers will always opt for the always open option given the choice.

The clearest example of this phenomenon I’ve ever seen was with a restaurant in that ill-fated location at the end of Victoria Row in Charlottetown that’s been occupied by so many failed restuarants over the years (it’s now Jumbles and Gems, which seems to be doing just fine). The incarnation I’m thinking of, the name of which escapes me, offered uncommonly good food and uncommonly good service at very reasonable prices. They might have actually suceeded.

Instead, they went through the complete shrinking hours cycle in about 30 days. Started off open 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Ended up open only for dinner. Closed forever shortly thereafter.

Amicus

When Roch Carrier, National Librarian of Canada, was in Charlottetown this winter speaking at the Confederation Centre lecture series, he mentioned how proud he was that they had made their Amicus online catalog freely available to anyone, both over the web and by Z39.50.

He is justifiably proud: the catalog is a work of web art. It has a simple and elegant design, it’s quick, and because it’s truly web-based you can link to specific search results or to specific records in their collection.

What a wonderful, free and public resource!

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