Friday, November 09, 2012

LOLWut?


This is a play in 1 Act, inspired by an actual event that happened a few days ago at the place where I work.

INT. OFFICE BUILDING ELEVATOR - DAY (LUNCHTIME)

Crazylegs is on an elevator on its way to the ground floor. It stops to pickup more passengers - the doors opening to let two middle-aged men, Bob and Tom, onto the elevator. Crazylegs steps to the rear and observes. Bob sniffs the air in an obvious fashion.

BOB
Hey! I smell fries. Someone got their lunch, I guess. Smells good!

TOM
It does smell good. Definitely the kind of smell that guys notice. I'll follow that smell anywhere when I'm hungry. 

BOB
Well I do like my fries. My wife hates fries, though. We hardly ever have them at home. I think I'd like some fries right now!

TOM
That's what I mean. The smell of fries does something to men. We should get some fries.

There is a pause in the conversation. Crazylegs avoids any eye contact while Bob and Tom study the display above the door, watching the floor numbers change.

BOB
Do you think it works on gay guys - the frie smell thing?

TOM
I'm not sure. Maybe it does... Hey - don't ask, don't tell! Right? Am I right?

Bob and Tom chuckle in that way that only frie-loving manly-men can chuckle. The elevator doors open and the occupants leave. Crazylegs makes a point of lagging behind a little bit, just to think for a moment and try to make sense of things.

As a post-script to this little vignette, I can confirm that neither Bob or Tom bought french-fries for lunch that day.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Stop Kicking This Dog!

I'm going to come clean: I voted for Mayor Joe.

The breadth of my reasoning had less to do with liking his platform and more to do with stirring the pot a bit and seeing what could happen - very scientific, I know. The incumbant, Anne Marie, had run out of steam from where I was sitting - not that I was ever that impressed by her rein. We needed some new faces and Joe's was new enough.

Don't get me wrong, I never bought his 0% tax schtick. I knew it wasn't workable. And I assumed he knew that, too, just like we both knew his promise of 10,000 new jobs for the city was never really going to happen. He was a character - a guy who was a lttle over the top in his enthusiasm for the job. On the whole, he had a Big Picture in his head, which was more than I could say for the others running that race.

"Why not give the guy a chance?", I thought.

I was wrong, of course, and I'm not the only. one. Joe's Big Picture these days seems to be doing whatever it takes to meet a few election promises vs. taking the long view for a city that desperately needs one. In a better world that would be a great thing - a politician trying to keep their promises. But we've learned too late that those promises are mostly about Joe, not about the city.

That Joe is a damn fine cheerleader for our city is not in dispute, nor is his genuine desire to bring jobs and prosperity back into town. Urban sprawl, neglected parklands, development at any cost (despite the best advice of city planners and residents), secret deals to sell off city assets, dysfunction in the council chambers, fuzzy surtaxes, Ombudsman investigations - these are just some of the reasons I regret giving the guy a chance.

Now the latest embarrassment: an RCMP probe into Joe's office finances from his time as a federal cabinet minister. The guy who has never been at a loss for adjectives has suddenly lawyered up and makes a point of running from the very media-types he loved to court. Ego intact, he refuses any discussion of stepping down from his post until the investigation is complete (perhaps the most honourabe path). Worse still, he will not even provide his side of the story to the very people who voted for him.

And for those who say Joe's RCMP troubles don't matter to our city - they're wrong. They do matter because these allegations speak directly to the ethics of the Mayor. They matter because we trust the Mayor to be a Stewart of the city's finances and growth. They matter because they cast doubt on the ability of the Mayor to put the city before personal interests.

We need to give Joe the benefit of the doubt under due process, but the Mayor needs to respond clearly to the citizen's of the city who elected him. A resolution is simple, really - 2 easy questions. Observe:



My free advice now complete - and apropos of nothing - here's my one-and-only Joe story:

Back in the mid-1980's, David Suzuki came to town and gave an evening talk at a local high school. I happened to be in attendance that night. Somehow, I ended up sitting in the front row of the auditorium and, to my surprise, Joe was sitting directly beside me (he was a city councillor - or maybe on Board of Control - back in those days).

Over the next 90 minutes or so we listened to Suzuki give his impassioned plea for us all to be nicer to the animals, plants, and natural resources all around us. Suzuki's talk complete (and our eyes opened), we all got up to leave and I found myself near the doors standing in a small group that included Joe. At this point in the story I have a vague sense that Suzuki was standing nearby, but that might be my own wishful thinking for a great embellishment.

As we milled about, waiting to leave the auditorium, I remember Joe making a small joke to no one in particular (and I'm paraphrasing here), "Well, after listening to all that, I guess I should stop kicking my dog, eh?".

You could have heard a pin drop after Joe's quip hit the floor with a meaty thud. I recall a few awkward chuckles as we all concentrated hard on getting out the door. All of us, I suspect even Joe, knew that a faux pas had been committed - in capital letters.

With our current troubles in the Mayor's office, I kind of feel that way again.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Birthday Time!

So JediBoy turned 17 yesterday. In my mind's eye, he's been 12 for an eternity - perhaps because that matches my own mental age. Stll, there's no denying that my youngest brat is getting older. If there's an upside to being reminded of my own mortality like this, it's that finding a birthday present for JediBoy is easy-peasy these days. I pretend to buy something for myself, I wrap it in pretty paper, and I give to him.

Thanks to family far and wide, the boy hauled in some Doctor Who and Minecraft nerd-wear, Dishonored for Xbox, and some books courtesy of Doctorow, Moore, and Inman. While I'm well past being able to share clothes with a tall, skinny teenager, I look forward to reading his books and playing his games once a respectful number of days have passed (I calculate 17 is about right).

But back to my own mortality since this is my blog. Once the rest of the house had gone to bed, JediBoy and I retired to the basement to catch a few episodes of Adventure Time and sip an illicit bottle of birthday beer (his Mom will never find out). In between making our standard WTF Faces at Finn and Jake, I kept reminding myself that things are changing. In a few months, the boy will be figuring out his post-high-school plans. A few months after that he could be moving to some other town to attend school.

I want the best for him, of course. But I selfishly don't want things to change too much for me. The idea of sitting alone to play my video games or watch my zombies - it's a sad picture. I know my wife will try to step up her geekiness (she'a already hardcore into Doctor Who), but I still lament the idea that JediBoy won't be in his chair while I'm in mine.

In the meantime, I'll be waiting patiently for the Xbox to be free.




Saturday, September 29, 2012

Just Because You Can

.... does not mean you should.

I feel like I invented that phrase. I probably didn't, but since it's nigh-onto-impossible to have a truly unique idea when you share a floating rock with 7 billion of your species, I kind of like to think that phrase is mine. And it's an important one, because it makes me remember that some things are worth doing and some are not. Case-in-point: anyone can jump of their roof wearing a cape and holding an umbrella, but it's a good bet that no sudden updrafts will break the laws of physics.

Keep that mind while I talk about technology and its usefulness when sitting on my workbench.

We'll get the GameCube Portable out of the way, first. Yes, we've worked on this thing off and on for well over 18 months. We've had a false starts, miscues, do-overs, ephipanies, modest successes, and have amassed what is probably the largest collection of dead GameCubes in the county. A few months back we got to the finish line and discovered it had been moved 10 feet further away. Completely assembled, our creation had a piece of electronics go bad ('go bad' is not an official engineering term, by the way).

So we've ripped the thing open and have been doing repairs - repairs that necessitated finding yet another used GameCube to harvest for parts. Finding our donor is a story in itself - one that took us to a rundown farmhouse on a remote rural intersection where business was quickly conducted with a wall of tattoos. The price we paid was far too cheap for the goods we bought. Take that however you want to.

So now we're in the process of getting the GameCube Portable back together. So far, so good - but we're not 100% positive all problems are solved. A couple of hours would get us to 'done', I suspect. I also suspect we're dragging our heels because, deep down, we fear another problem will stop us in our tracks - maybe for good.

So with one project on the go, we've started another (sort of).

The RaspberryPi is a Linux-based computer a little larger than a deck of cards - and it costs just $35. For that price you get a remarkable piece of tech with HDMI output, USB ports, an Ethernet jack, and 256Mb of RAM all running off a Linux stack stored on an SD card. These devices are made available through the non-profit RaspBerryPi Foundation, founded by a few Cambridge University students whose goal is to make cheap computing available for educational purposes.

It would be hyperbole to say the Foundation has been wildly successful beyond their dreams. But the fact is, getting your hands on one of these things has a wait time of 2 to 3 months these days. Geeks and Makers have been snapping these up and doing amazing things. We were lucky to get our hands on one these devices (shown below) and have really just been tinkering a little bit:

 
We haven't decided what we'll do with ours, yet, although JediBoy has been doing a lot of playing around with Python scripting. We actually have a second one on order and my plan is to turn it into a small, cheap appliance supporting XBMC (XBox Media Center) and Skype.

Like projects that have come before, we'll see what happens...


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Guess I Overslept or Something

Showing up here every month or two with nothing much to say was never my intention. I'll need to fix that. So listen, I'll do my best to show up here far more frequently. In return - assuming you show up, too - you'll kind of overlook the fact that I still have nothing much to say. It can be one of those secrets we both know and dare not admit to each other beyond the awkward honesty of direct eye-contact. Deal?

Where were we? Right, Disney stuff.

 
So we went there and it was great fun. August in Florida means hot weather, and we had lots of it.And where there is hot, humid weather there is oftem thunderstorms, and we had lots of those, too. But the weather did not get in our way in the least. In fact, it served to chase off the more fragile tourists and, on one occasion, left us with an entire waterpark to ourselves. That was a fun evening once I got rid of the my Omega Man vibe.

It was a quick trip for sure - arrived on a Tuesday and home on the following Sunday. The weirdest part was leaving my daughter behind (sucks to grow up and hold a job, eh?). We struggled a bit without the more-perfect symmetry of having a foursome at the House of Mouse. Things just didn't fit right sometimes - rides and attractions aren't built for odd-numbered parties.

As for the big day - my wife's birthday - it seemed to be everything she hoped for. She got her rope-drop birthday button at EPCOT and was wished 'Happy Birthday' more times than we could count. She got to join forces with Agent P to solve a theme-park mystery. After a sprint and a soaking under a Florida downpour, we had a lovely lunch at Teppan Edo where I made sure the staff acknowledged her birthday with just the right amount of embarrassment. Many giraffes posed for pictures just off the balcony of our hotel room. And she got to finish off her day in a plummeting elevator.

What else could one ask for, eh?


Friday, August 10, 2012

Spontaneously Cautious


I'd like to think I'm capable of being spontaneous. But with the possible exception of going out for ice cream at a moment's notice, I'm not really wired that way. I see every angle of every situation, every pro and every con, and I tend to take my own sweet time to reach a conclusion. While that approach may work well in my chosen IT Guy career, it frustrates my poor wife who just wants to know whether chicken would be okay for dinner tomorrow night.

Maybe there's hope for me, yet. I'm going to DisneyWorld next week. Little more than a week ago, I wasn't. So in the past 10 days, I've planned things, booked flights, arranged hotels, BEEN SPONTANEOUS! - all under a light sheen of perspiration that betrays my true nature.

You see, my wife's birthday is next week and it's a milestone (not saying it's 50). Like me, she never makes a big deal over birthdays. But this year, for this milestone, she wanted to do something special and take a little trip to mark the occasion. So we looked at all kinds of ideas (she really wanted to hike the Grand Canyon), but nothing was working out very well.

But she had a (sort of) secret thought about being at DisneyWorld on her birthday. Really, I think she wants the damn birthday button. Now we've given a fair chunk of our time and money to Disney over the years and we know that it's not a cheap vacation. But some heretofore unknown planets seemed to align in the past week and, on a whim, I checked things out. Disney was having a sale on rooms and there were good deals on flights to be had.

With a few clicks of the mouse and a liberal spreading of credit card numbers, we're booked. My wife will have her birthday celebration with Mickey, and I get the naughty satisfaction of doing something spontaneous.

All this new-found free spirit living aside, I'm still not sure about chicken for dinner tomorrow night.

Friday, July 27, 2012

I Hate Indoor Plumbing


After spending several days at the in-law's cottage a few weeks ago - days spent rebuilding a deck and having no luck getting a water pump to work - we're going back for a spur-of-the-moment long-weekend.

My theory is that it's not safe to sneak up on the cottage like this. Big jobs (even bigger than deck repair) that were out-of-the-question for lack of strong backs, suddenly head to the top of the To Do List when a few more able bodies show up at the docks.

On the plus side, the weather There will be better than the weather Here, so it's conceivable that I'll get a few minutes to sit on that freshly-repaired deck with Book, Beer, and Snack. And if I really luck out, I may use the next three days to plough through six or seven pages of Infinite Jest.

Dare to dream.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I Like It Scary


The Slenderman mythos that sprang from the foul depths of SomethingAwful and has been at the core of the sometimes-brilliant Marble Hornets series has now been turned into a video game. Slender is free-to-download PC game that was released just a few short weeks ago at www.slendergame.com and has since gone quietly viral around the Net. Fact is, the download site has shut down - presumably under the traffic load - although I have to believe other download sites will become available soon.

So what's the big deal? Tonight I found out.

Part Marble Hornets and part Alan Wake, the game is short and simple. You're in the woods at night armed with a flashlight and batteries that will eventually wear out. You need to find 8 pages posted on trees and outbuildings - pages that tell a weird story of something else that might inhabit the forest. For every page you find, the risk of encountering that 'something' increases.

The graphics are simple and effective - especially the lighting. But it's the soundtrack and audio effects that convincingly create an atmosphere of walking through the woods at night.

In my own run-through, I encountered the Slenderman after the second page and it was unnerving (actual screenshot above). While easy enough to escape at that point (he never actually chases you), the effect was convincing and I found the hairs on the back of my neck at full attention. I even managed to scare myself a second time in true Three Stooges fashion when I turned too quickly and found a tree a little closer than I planned.

If you can find this game for download, it's worth the clicks to try it out. If you can't find it (yet), I recommend entering 'slender game youtube' into your favourite search engine. You'll find a few videos of people playing (and reacting to) Slenderman The Game.

As for myself, I need to go turn on a few more lights.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Last Bay on Your Left

Tomorrow starts the ritual I've observed for almost 25 years now: the annual sojourn to my in-law's cottage. I've written about the place before (type 'cottage' in the Search field up top), so I don't need to do it again. This isn't about that. It's about the mindset connected with being in an isolated place with too much time to think and read. Here's how things will go:
  • It will take a day or two to slow myself down to cottage speed. In the meantime I'll be heroin-jonesing for an Internet connection and wondering why, oh, why I'm too cheap-ass to get a smartphone.
  • I will wonder why I didn't bring a laptop since I'd have LOTS of time to write that bit of software I never find time to write. Note that I do not own a laptop nor is there any particular bit of software I'm longing to write these days.
  • It will suddenly make perfect sense to damn the torpedoes and empty the bank account for a trip to Machu Pichu - if only I had an Internet connection to make the arrangements.
  • I will read a lot. Instead of breakfast-time newspaper, I will read a Wired magazine.
  • I will discover a burning need to try my hand at writing a short story, start a really great podcast, or address some other creative itch. I will also discover that the intensity of my itch is inversely proportional to my proximity to paved roads and wifi.
  • I will be silently thankful that I don't have to be the 'banker' during evening Rummoli. We go broke a lot during that game.
  • Showering every other day will be a-okay.
  • A sort of Stockholm Syndrome will take hold a day or two before we have to leave the cottage. That feeling will evaporate with my car's A/C kissing my skin.
  • On the trip home we will stop for a meal somewhere along highway 400 and it will feel like an oasis.
It's the same every year. Oddly, being cut-off from the world (a little bit) seems to charge my batteries even as I chafe against it all. So, I'll see you all in a week - maybe with something to show for the trouble, but probably not.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Snicker No More

Lazy Post #679: I haven't spoken about this in awhile, but the GameCube Portable project lives on - albeit at a slower pace. Here's why:

It was done. We shoved its guts into place and screwed the case together. I tell you, it was done. Aside from a few clumsy bits of ergonomics, it all seemed to be working.

But we found a problem we had never encountered before.

After a few minutes of playtime, the controls - all the buttons, triggers, and sticks - just seemed to lock up. The game would continue to play, the audio and video continued unabated, but the controls would no longer respond. Why hadn't we noticed this before?

The problem seemed to be related to the type of game being played and the amount of screen rendering being done. For the Zelda game we had used for all our testing, the demands on graphics rendering are pretty light. To re-create the problem, we would have to get Link to run around constantly for at least 5 minutes. But for more demanding graphics (we tested with a Goddamn Tony Hawk skateboarding game), we could get the controls to lock up after only a minute or so of frantic Ollies and other skateboard trickery.

Based on these tests, I thought the issue might be heat related - e.g. the graphics processor heating up fast without adequate cooling. We'd seen this before in our early prototyping, although the result was always the GameCube turning off the video display outright. Never had the controls appeared to lock up. Nevertheless, I started disassembling and blowing more fans on the electronics, but no luck in resolving the control problem.

Since it doesn't seem to be heat related, then there's something amiss in the hardware. I'm not smart enough to figure out what the exact the problem might be, and neither are any of the Internet Beings we know who hobby in this world. So the next step is going to be brute force: swapping out old parts for new parts until the problem is resolved or I lose my grip on sanity and send the whole thing rocketing into a concrete wall. That would feel sweet - for about 10 seconds.

I hope it's the former.

I know it's the former.

Stay tuned, I guess.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Frogs. It Had To Be Frogs.

We've been losing sleep at my house. Literally - and all because of the frogs. Scientists have been saying for years that global frog populations are in decline, but I'd like to invite those scientists to hang out in my backyard for an evening and see if they don't revise their numbers.

Several years ago we built a backyard pond. It's nothing super fancy - a 10' by 12' oval with a rocky waterfall on one side. Over the years we've added lots of foliage along its banks and a stone sitting area on one side. It's deep enough that we can keep a few fish living under the lilies and hyacinth that cover most of the pond's surface in the Summer. It has become our little oasis - a place to enjoy a beverage and read a book while relaxing in a Muskoka chair.

So here's what we learned a few months after filling the pond: Frogs will find water. We don't know where they come from. Maybe they use airborne reconnaissance. Maybe they use magic. We just don't know. All we do know is that we had some frogs move in and we thought that was pretty cool.

Every Spring since then has included 2 or 3 frogs taking up residence beside the fish. They eat bugs and provide a certain ambiance to the whole pond experience. We like the frogs and it's reasonable to believe the frogs like us - at least for our small oasis. This year has been different.

Maybe it was the mild Winter or perhaps it was our very early Spring, but our frog population exploded. Where we might expect a handful of quiet Kermits, we had triple our usual number. And they are decidedly not quiet. For the past few months our frogs have put on a nightly concert - a chorus of frog-calls loud enough to interrupt our sleep, even through closed windows.

We've just put up with the noise figuring they would quiet down once they've found mates or marked out territory or whatever it is that drives frogs to spend every night yelling - a green clenched fist shaking at the sky (I just made up that last part). After all, it's just Nature, so who are we to complain?

Well it turns out that some of our neighbours are less at peace with Nature. Saturday morning there was a knock at the door. One of neighbours was not enjoying the nightly frog concert. It fact, it was Those Neighbours - the ones everybody has on their street. They're the neighbours that never offer up so much as a "hello', but will always let you know when they're pissed about something.

In this instance, they had a point: The frogs have been damn loud. And since they asked nicely that we look into the matter, I felt like I had to do something. So the plan was to cull the herd. We'd trap as many frogs as we could and relocate them to a nearby marsh. It would not be easy.

For a few hours on Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning, and again Sunday evening, we went hunting. Our 'system' involved my wife acting as spotter while I hopped(?) around the pond with a net on a wooden pole. I would quietly dip my net behind a frog and use a bit of a wrist-shot to either snare it or at least flick it onto the lawn. At that point it would be free-for-all trying to catch the slimy bastard, get it into a bucket, and get a lid on the bucket before it launched itself back into the pond.

We looked and sounded foolish. This I know. Frogs are wily, driven creatures and it would often take us more than one or two tries to catch and keep one. We shouted, we jumped, we swore - but the weekend tally stands at 11 captured and relocated amphibians. One or two remain in the pond, but things are a lot quieter so far. We'll give it a few nights and see if our mission is fully accomplished.

In the meantime, I'm going to keep looking over my shoulder, lest I end up like Ray Milland.



Sunday, June 10, 2012

Bambi Makes Some Friends

A few weeks back I was lucky(?) enough to spend most of a weekend not chaperoning the goings-on in our local Gomorrah. Sunday night, however, delivered a different brand of karma. Like all good stories, this one needs to start at the beginning.

Somewhere around the dinner hour, my cell rang. It was Sean, good friend to animals of both the two-legged and four-legged varieties. His Mom had spotted a young deer in her front yard and no Mama Deer was around. Sean remembered that my daughter volunteered at a the Salthaven wildlife rehab center and was looking for some advice on what needed to be done, if anything.

After a call to Salthaven, the advice was to leave Baby Deer where it was since Mama would likely show up by nightfall - this was normal deer stuff. If that didn't happen, we'd go to Plan B. Of course, nightfall came and my cell rang once more. Mama has not shown up to collect Baby. After some further calls, Plan B was that we should collect up the deer and bring into Salthaven for a look-see.

We had a mission! My daughter, my son, and I piled into our SUV and went to collect Sean. Then it was a short drive outside the city to his Mom's place where we would find Baby Deer nestled in some tall grass beside a rural road. While we expected to find a juvenile deer, this one was very small. My daughter figured Baby was less than two weeks old - the size of a small dog with very long legs.

Baby was not afraid of people and much too small to ride safely in the back of the SUV. We scooped it up in a blanket so that my daughter could hold it on her lap for the ride out to nearby Salthaven. The head of the rehab center, Brian Salt, met us in the laneway and performed in a sort-of physical on the deer, all the while educating us on how to determine the health of a deer (maybe that will come in handy someday).

A deer, an SUV, and an ugly old blanket.

The prognosis: Baby Deer was in in fine shape. It was strong and it had been fed recently. We learned that Mama Deer will often hide her baby and then leave it be for hours at a stretch - a tactic common in the first two weeks of a deer's life. The idea here is that Mama, being larger and more visible, can easily attract predators. By staying away from Baby Deer, she can outrun predators without endangering her offspring.

The Boy and a temprary pet.

We were encouraged to return Baby Deer since Mama would come looking again. As long as we put it somewhere within 100 yards of where we found it, things would work out okay. So it was back into the SUV for the five of us and back to the quiet country road where we started. Sean had the idea that we should put Baby further away from the road. Grabbing a flashlight, he led us through a farmer's field toward a nearby woodlot.

The Girl swears this is not a puppy, but still...

It was a little bit surreal - tromping single-file through field stubble late on a Sunday night with our new four-legged friend wrapped in a blanket. We found a good spot for Baby Deer, and watched as it explored the undergrowth until it found a reasonable bed of leaves for the night. After updates for Sean's Mom, we drove back into the city hoping that Mama Deer would do her job.

There were no further sightings of deer the next day. We took that as a good sign even though we all wondered whether Baby and Mama were okay. Nature would take its course - it always does. But I think we all felt a bit priviledged to give Nature a little shove in the right direction.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Write Anything!

Someone once told me the best way to be a writer is to sit down and write. While I don't aspire to be a WRITER, I like being a writer here when the mood is right. Problem is, the mood hasn't be very right the last few months, so sitting down to write isn't working very well. While I try to avoid the "here's what I did today" style of blogging (my life is not very exciting) that's what you're going to get today because, hey, a guy needs to write, sometimes. Right? Or is that write?

So it was a long, strange trip of a weekend - much of it was spent in the local beach community of Grand Bend. Billing itself as "Ontario's West Coast", it's a place to be when you're young, uninhibited, and don't mind sand getting into awkward places. Obviously, I don't fit the demographic even if I'm somewhat tolerant of sand in my Speedo.

It's a subversive tradition in my town for high-school seniors to celebrate their prom by taking over Grand Bend for a weekend. Like lemmings to the sea, these under-agers make their way towards Lake Huron in the wee hours of the morning after tuxes and gowns are traded for beachwear. While parents mostly indulge this tradition, even renting cottages and bus transportation, the local constabulary is kept on their toes as these Citizens of Tomorrow learn that blackouts and sleeping on the beach are not as fun as the Hangover-American Pie-Superbad movies seem to hint.

So there I was, with three other middle-aged friends, trying my damnedest not to look creepy amongst the 17 and 18 year olds who had overrun the town for a weekend of post-prom celebrations. I was only there to help kill time. Two of my friends had kids spending the weekend attempting (and failing at) debauchery, so their excuse was some light chaperoning. Somehow this translated into my own presence and a weekend spent drinking and golfing in this resort town (neither being something at which I particularly excel). Outside of my alcohol bloat and wandering through the woods looking for golf balls, my only actual chaperone duties involved driving a few sleepy teens back into town when Sunday decided that a good thunderstorm was the best solution to scrape the town clean of vomit-scented promiscuity.

So you would think the highlight of my weekend was the chance to take a little holiday and do all the unhealthy things I never get to do. You might believe that the chance to actually touch local celebrity, Princess Coco, would be a most memorable moment. You might even wonder whether spending two nights at a cheap motor inn with other other middle-aged guys might produce some stories worthy of re-telling.

But I'm going to be honest: the highlight of the weekend was none of those things. The highlight would wait for the comfort of my family room on Sunday night - beginning with a phone call for help and ending in the darkness of a farmer's woodlot. But I think that's some writing that will wait until another day...



Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Still Quite The Idiot

About a year ago I took a business-related train ride during which I spent my time abusing the free wi-fi to annoy my kids. I recently found myself repeating that train journey - with instructions from my kids to annoy them some more. While I obliged them, I will admit that my latest efforts were not up-to-scratch. Nevertheless, I need content - any content - to fill this space, so here is the latest series of emails intended to annoy my long-suffering offspring as I travelled to Toronto and back on good ol' Via1.

Email #1 - Going to Toronto
They just gave me a washcloth. On the train! It's really hot, too. They think we're all dirty passengers, I guess. The Via people are starting off on the wrong foot here!









Email #2 - Going to Toronto
 Ho ho! Via is being nicer now that we are clean! Here's my apetizer: smoked meat, cheese, and little tomatos! Soon they will bring me sourdough rolls and wine. Yay Via! Yay being a clean passenger!









Email #3 - Going to Toronto
Oh noes! There's the Royal York! It looks pretty spooky. I wonder if it's haunted. What do you think? Should I go inside? If there are ghosts in there I won't be happy. I'll say to them "Hey ghosts! I didn't want to come in here but those kids of mine said I should. You just better talk to THEM!".

So if you see a ghost later, you'll know why!





Email #4 - In Toronto
Well there's the fancy lobby of the Royal York. Just like I thought - it's pretty full of ghosts! Do you see them in the lobby down there? They look like people, but they're ghosts I tell you!  I better get back on the train. I hope they don't follow me home!!!!








Email #5 - On the way home
This is the train station in Toronto. It's pretty spooky, too! What is this town - Spookyville?











Email #6 - On the way home
Hold on a minute! Those via guys are up to no good! My Via dinner is the exact same as my Via lunch!! Oh those tricksters!

Wait! It's not the Via guys. It's those ghosts from Toronto. They're on the train and making trouble for us passengers! Arghh!!







So the narrative here is not very cohesive. I get that. Blame the very generous Via1 bar cart and my lack of self-control.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

He Finds Himself Older

Charles is a guy I know who is almost 15 years my senior. When I turned 40, we talked about how it feels to grow older. To me, 40 felt like 30 and 30 didn't feel a whole lot different than 20. So I asked Charles about when he started to feel 'older'.

There was no hesitation. "It's 50", he said. "When a guy turns 50, he notices things starting to change. Your body starts giving you signs that maybe it's not going to work the way you expect. You'll just have to see."

Knowing Charles' generally pessimistic outlook, I smiled the smile of a fellow who had a decade to negotiate the terms of turning 50. At 40, you still believe you could live forever.

Nowadays, I'm almost halfway between 49 and 50. I think about Charles' warning and, dammit, he might have been right. There are signs.

There's the obvious stuff, of course. I have the odd strand of grey hair on my head. Finding them has become a game for my family, mostly because those grey hairs are rare and elusive for now. Even on my chest those bits of grey are making themselves known and I sometimes wonder if plucking them would be worth the discomfort. And while it gives me the willies to think about it, I await the inevitable strands of gray further south (anatomically speaking). I cannot think of a sadder sign of aging than that. It may be time to research The Boyzilian.

I suppose there are wrinkles to think about - a bit around the eyes, for sure. The backs of my hands look like they might belong to someone middle-aged. But for the most part, my skin has been spared the wizened look (so far).

And speaking of hair, I'm noticing some growing in places it never grew before. If not for my 'personal electric trimmer' and the nice lady who coifs my hair, others might notice that my ears can take on a vague fuzziness and my eyebrows have no clear sense of 'beginning' and 'ending'.

All of this represents the outward signs of getting older, of course. Since I'm married and legally have no need to attract the fairer sex, I can manage the optics of aging well enough.  But the inward signs that things might be changing - they give me pause that maybe, just maybe, I won't be living forever.

Physical activity hurts more than it used to. I play hockey once a week for fun. I go to the gym of few times a week to keep my knees healthy enough to play hockey. It's a delicate balance that I've perfected over the last few years. But anymore, the pains from one activity just serve to take my mind off the pains from another activity.

My body doesn't bounce back from things the way it used to. I played in a charity hockey tournament last weekend. For a change, my team played in a division reserved solely for those of us over 45. This should have been manageable, but I could barely walk for 3 days afterwards.  Even a full day of yardwork can mean an evening of creakiness in my joints (Scotch is an effective medicine for this).

I'm not the night owl I used to be. Far too often I find myself nodding off before the 11pm news. This angers me because I know all the cool kids are having fun into the wee hours. I imagine my friends noticing my XBOX is offline at midnight, which is pretty embarrassing in its way.

I'm experiencing life at 4am for all the wrong reasons. It's a touchy subject for guys, but it's a good bet that ageing is going to include a new alarm clock for your bladder. As a double slap to the male ego, your bladder will drag you to the pre-dawn porcelaine only to develop a certain shyness about the whole idea.

I no longer know how to dress myself, apparently. I've never much cared about being fashionable. When I'm not at work, my clothing choices are governed by a hatred of socks, shoes, and long pants. But when my teenaged kids suggest that I should re-think the cargo shorts, that hurts, man. I've worked hard for these legs, you know?

On the surface, Charles might have been right about turning 50. Or maybe it's all just a self-fulfilling prophecy - ten years of wondering manifesting itself in the physical world. But knowing Charles, I'm thinking his warning was a bit of a challenge - a virus in my psyche - aimed at making sure I fight the feeling of 'older'. If Charles can still play D&D on a regular basis while staring at 65 years on this Earth, then I'm thinking I can still wear cargo shorts and play XBOX into the wee hours once in awhile. I'll just need a quick nap, I think.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I Want to Believe

 
Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.
Sir Arthur Eddington
English astronomer (1882 - 1944)
 
Sometimes you think you have everything figured out. Sometimes you're wrong. I got a phone call out of the blue a few days ago. It was my mother and it went something like this:
 
Mom: "I was wondering if you ever watched that TV show 'The X-Files'".
 
Me, hestitantly: "Ummm, sure. Like a hundred years ago. It's been off the air awhile..."
 
Mom: " Well I thought you did and that's what I told your Aunt Gloria when she dropped off these X-Files things. She just wanted someone to have them who would appreciate them."
 
Me, confused: "Ummm, okay? Aunt Gloria?"
 
Mom: "Oh yes, she was a huge fan of 'The X-Files'. It was her favourite show, you know. She collected these X-Files things."
 
Me, still confused: "I had no idea... so she collected things?"
 
Mom, almost chirpy now: "Oh she did! She's just cleaning out her closets and she had these things and so I said you probably watched that show, so you'd appreciate them. I have them here for you. There's a shirt and some books and some dolls..."
 
Me, totally weirded out: "You mean figurines? The TV characters?"
 
Mom, still chirpy: "Oh sure, but they're dolls. I call them dolls."
 
Me, thinking about eBay: "Okay, well, I'll pick them next time I'm over..."
 
So my Aunt, in her late 60's, is an X-Files fan. She lives in the same town as I do and in all the years I've known her (like, all my life) we have never spoken of the X-Files. I have never heard her mention X-Files. Or aliens. Or ghosts. Or creatures in the sewers. I had no inkling that she was into sci-fi genre entertainment, let alone 'The X-Files'. I have never known her to watch much television, to be honest.
 
Truth be told, I did a little googling on the subject of X-Files figurines and had visions that maybe my Aunt's 'dolls' were the limited-edition 12" figurines that demand a few hundred dollars apiece by collector's (not that I would have sold them). But, of course, they aren't. Hers - now mine - are the more pedestrian 6" figurines that might go for $15 out on eBay.
 
Still, I'm mystified and impressed. The truth is out there, and often surprising.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

On the Down-Low - Part 2

Part 1 of this discussion talked about one aspect of Canada's proposed Bill C-30: access to subscriber information. This is the information known by your ISP that links your Internet identity to your real identity, regardless of what you do on the Internet. In this installment, let's talk about another big concern arising out C-30: access to your Internet usage or, as the Bill states, "enabling authorized persons to exercise their authority to intercept communications". And by authorized persons, C-30's definition casts a pretty wide net:
  • the Canadian Security Intelligence Service under the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act
  • a police service, including any related to the enforcement of any laws of Canada, of a province or of a foreign jurisdiction
  • the Commissioner of Competition under the Competition Act
In the legislation, itself, interception is a really big topic involving all kinds of requirements for ISPs to manage their operations and all kinds of powers for the Government to exploit and direct those operations. Many of the requirements are silly or onerous on the ISPs, themselves, and Michael Geist's blog talks about these problems much more eloquently than I could. Suffice to say, C-30 in its current form is the very definition of Big Brother.

But what I want to concentrate on in this space is C-30's impact on you and I, the Customers of the ISPs and users of the Internet. When you hear the Media use terms like intercept, deep-packet inspection, and Internet tracking, what does this really mean?

Fundamentally, this is all an exercise in Internet eavesdropping. It's seeing a transcript of every website you visit, every Facebook post you make, every chat session you might have, every email you send or receive - everything you do on the Internet. This is scary stuff if you have an expectation of privacy.

Before we go any further, we need to balance off the scary stuff with some good intentions. The goal for C-30 is to provide better tools for law enforcement to do investigations in the Internet Age. On that point, I support the idea of C-30. In some ways, C-30 tries to formalize some practises that, today, are accomplished on a more voluntary basis between ISPs, the police, and the courts. That various Canadian police associations support C-30 is no surprise, because it will help them do their jobs more effectively. But C-30, in its current form, is a bit of a disaster (in my opinion) in that it solidly trumps the right to privacy and due process with the state's right to know. And while the police might appreciate C-30 as a tool, democracy is a messy business, unfortunately. I'm sure they would also find it useful to have a key to everyone's home as an investigative tool, but that ain't gonna happen, either.

Bill C-30 does provide a lovely opportunity to consider the larger topic of privacy on the Internet - whether it's the police or the bad guys who might be listening. So the real question remains: How can we preserve our expectation of electronic privacy when the barbarians seem to be climbing the gates?

Outside of any legal rights, the basic technical answers are obfuscation and encryption. Those, in themselves, are a big, geeky topics full of really hard math that require very smart people to figure out all the details. But all you need to consider is the best means to protect your Internet privacy is to hide what you're doing in a way that it cannot be discovered (or intercepted) by the wrong prople. And the fundamental way to hide what you're doing is through encrypting what you're doing and hiding your identity.

The good news: There are a myriad of technqiues and software products (many are free!) that will provide you with all the capabilities you need. The bad news: The more airtight you want your privacy, the more geek-savvy you'll need. But let's throw caution to the wind and see what shadows we can throw over our online activities.

Email is one tool that has many options for ensuring the bad guys will never gain access to the recipes you share with your sibling or the hundreds of Justin Bieber fan letters you write. Those options include:
  • Use plugin serrvices for your email client software to encrypt your email with technology based on PGP (Pretty Good Privacy).The downside here is that your email recipients need to play this game, too.
  • Use a disposable email service such as Malinator or Hushmail. These service use various techniques for keeping your email encrypted and seemingly anonymous.
Make sure that your important web browsing is encrypted and, therefore, unreadable by prying eyes. The standard for browser encryption is call SSL/TLS (Secure Socket Layer). Look at the URL you are accessing. If it starts with HTTPS, then your browser session is being encrypted. A great example is likely your bank's online banking site, which should be using encryption for all of your personal banking functions. Now if the URL starts with HTTP, there is no encryption happening. So if you land on a webpage that asks for personal information and you notice the URL starts with HTTP, you are not protected! Beyond your bank's online banking service, many popular websites offer, at least, the option of using SSL encryption:
  • Make sure your Facebook access is always SSL-encrypted.
  • Ditto if you hang out on Twitter.
  • If you use any of the popular free email services like Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo, they use SSL by default.
  • More and more websites are giving you the option to access their services using your social media identity. Yahoo mail, for example, will let you access their service using your Facebook or Google (Gmail) account information. While this may be convenient, you are also extending your identity across different websites and different sets of 'free' services - and this means your online activity is just a little more trackable!
With the possible exception of the disposable email services, all of these hints and tips are simply aimed at hiding the information you access online. SSL encryption makes sure that no one else can 'see' your banking information or your Facebook status, but this still leaves the question of hiding your Internet identity from your real identity (there's that subscriber information problem again!). So while it's good and useful that your Twitter feed is encrypted, your ISP still knows that your IP address is accessing the Twitter website. While no one can read your encrypted Tweets, they can still know that you - the REAL you - are a Twitter user.

If you're uncomfortable with the idea that your ISP (or someone else) can possibly know the websites you visit, then you can consider using TOR to give you total anonymity for all of your web browsing habits. The TOR website delves into the details, the basic premise of this (free) service is to leverage a sort of Internet-with-an-Internet. Referred to as onion routing by the lonelier geeks among us, TOR is a series of encrypted 'tunnels' that traverse the public Internet and make it impossible for anyone to follow your web browsing activities. Rather than directly accessing www.twitter.com, for example, TOR would send your website request through these tunnels to strip away your true IP address and website destination. In the end, you get to go to Twitter and no one can follow you there.

Finally, let's talk about non-technical means to protect your Internet privacy. While there are lots of technical tools available to keep on the down-low, the complete solution needs to include education and legislation. To keep informed and get involved in the privacy debate, here a few resources to consider:

OpenMedia is a grassroots organization dedicated to an open and affordable Internet as well as good digital policy for Canadians.

Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a sort of international flavour of OpenMedia, but with a wider mandate that adds free speech and consumer rights to the digital discussion.

And while I've mentioned him already, check out Michael Geist's blog. He is a law professor at the University of Ottawa and, arguably, Canada's premier analyst and commentator on issues in the digital realm.

Friday, March 02, 2012

On the Down-Low - Part 1

So I've been an IT Guy for almost 30 years and yet the vast majority of my friends are decidedly Non-IT Guys. That I don't socialize within my own caste is a subject for another day, but the significance here is that I end up doing tech support for my circle of friends and family. I don't actually mind, but I do find it almost wondrous that my friends in, say, the grocery business seldom offer quid pro quo in the form of free steaks. Admittedly, I'm often paid in bottles of Scotch for my efforts - and that ain't bad.

Back to the main point: A few of my friends have been asking me about Canada's proposed Bill C-30, which aims to update the capability for law enforcement agencies to monitor electronic communications (presumably with the intent of catching bad guys). The Canadian media has largely reported a simplistic view of C-30 as a means to eavesdrop on citizens' use of the Internet - tracking our emails, online chats, browsing history, etc. My friends have picked up on this, of course, which makes me wonder what illicit business they're mired in when I'm not around to remove viruses from their kids' PCs. This post is for them.

If you want some outstanding analysis of what C-30 means for Canada, Michael Geist's blog is where you need to be. But for the purposes of this discussion, there are only a few things you need to know:
  1. C-30 is incredibly flawed and has been pulled back to committees for re-work (thanks, in part, to people like Michael Geist).
  2. Notwithstanding its flaws, C-30 would not normally allow law enforcement to access your Internet usage details. Outside of the privacy concerns, this would be hugely impractical from a technical perspective. A more appropriate means to that end (provided for in C-30), would involve the Internet equivalent of a wire-tap to be placed on your Internet traffic - with a court order.
  3. C-30 would compel ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to hand over your subscriber information for the asking - without a court order.
Let's focus on this subscriber info stuff and pretend that you get your Internet service from Bell. Under C-30, Bell would be compelled to hand over your name, your address, your phone number, and your IP address to any law enforcement officer who asked. While perhaps not as damning as handing over the icky details around your fascination with LOLcat websites, this is very worrisome stuff.

When you access the Internet, you have an IP address assigned to you by your ISP. That IP address is like a fingerprint - no one else in the entire world has the same IP address as you do while you're accessing the Internet. It has various uses, but it basically ensures that your Internet traffic - be it web surfing or emailing or gaming or whatever - is managed separately from all other Internet traffic. Law enforcement cares about this precisely because it is a fingerprint, and fingerprints are useful things for solving crimes.

So here lies the problem. In the real world (outside the Internet), citizens in a democratic society do not normally provide their fingerprints to the authorities. And citizens are not compelled to do this outside of due process. Privacy is a right, even when you have nothing to hide. In the real world, the authorities investigate things, develop evidence, and can only invade a citizen's privacy when there is a clear, legal need to do so. Said another way, someone needs to be a suspect in a crime before they need to provide a fingerprint.

But under Bill C-30, this process gets somewhat reversed. Let's take a hypothetical example: You love your LOLcats and you post regularly on LOLcats forums under the pseudonym MoarCatsPleez. Using a pseudonym is smart because you don't want anyone knowing your real name on such a site, right? It just so happens that the LOLcats forum stamps each user's post with their IP address in addition to the current date and time. In a moment of weak judgement, you make a post that calls for the immediate euthanizing of all dogs to make more room in the world for cats. A Government Agent, a fellow cat lover with a higher tolerance for dogs, happens to read your post and grows alarmed at the laws that might be broken when militant LOLcats activists heed your cry and start hunting dogs. Under C-30, that Agent could simply ask your ISP for all the personal details attached to the IP address associated with your anti-dog post - i.e. who you are and where you live. While you were only joking about dog assassination, the wheels were set into motion to make your life problematic.

In that example, a more proper process would be for that Government Agent to take their concerns to a judge and argue for a court order to get access to your subscriber information. That approach, at least, ensures the Agent's concerns and evidence are solid enough before anyone's privacy - your privacy - was breached in the name of criminal investigation. This is one of C-30's basic flaws: lack of due process to protect Canadians' right to privacy. C-30 has numerous other flaws which, taken as a whole, gives the government undue powers for investigating Canadian citizens without the messy details of evidence and due process.

So there's your primer on C-30, IP addresses, and why it all matters. But it's only part of the story. In an upcoming post, I'll talk about how you can protect your online privacy and anonymity while continuing to enjoy all that LOLcats has to offer.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

So. Damn. Close.

 This is not the post I wanted to write.

The post I wanted to write was going to be flowery verses about triumph and perserverance. It was going to show the several poor souls who visit here regularly-ish that the future is now, that flying cars are just around the corner. It was was going announce that the GameCube Portable was really, really, real and ready to amaze. There was going to be pictures and video.

But this is a different post. This one is about stumbling at the finish line, dropping the ball in the end-zone, kicking the puck into the net, forgetting to save your game - just name your cliched about disappointment.

We were so close, we were. A few days ago we had fitted all of the remaining GameCube components into the case. It was a tight fit to get the motherboard, batteries, and cooling fan into their best positions. We even had to do a bit of last-minute tinkering just to shorten up some wires before fastening them into their places.

Everything worked - the screen, speakers, disc drive, headphone jack, triggers, power management. Everything worked. The final step was to join the 2 halves of the case and screw them together. With each turn of each screw, we tested and tested again to make sure everything still worked. And with half the screws in place, something happened.

The Z-button started acting strange. There's a little-known Gamecube 'easter egg' that involves pressing the Z-button while the console is powering on. When you do this, the Gamecube will play audio that sounds like a squeaking monkey followed by the sounds of a rattle and a laughing baby. Unfortunately, we were getting ths easter egg without holding the Z-button. Furthermore, the Z-button failed to work when we tested gameplay.

Since everything had been working properly before assembling the case, we could only deduce that something had been broken in the process of squeezing the the components together. And so we retreated back to familiar terrain - testing, removing, and replacing bits-and-pieces of the Gamecube while trying to pin-point the problem.

We've checked the Z-button, itself, and found no issues. We've replaced the controller daughterboard with a spare and this has not fixed the issue, eiether. We're now in the process of replacing some wiring and, while it doesn't seem likely this is the culprit, anything is possible. The good news (I suppose) is that we are isolating the problem and we will get it fixed. And all of the fussy work we've done with triggers, the screen setup, and overall case construction will be unaffected. As well, the latest setback has shown up a few more safeguards we'll need to consider when we get back to assembling the case halves. The bad news, of course, is that we're, again, a few more hours away from 'done'.

Pray for us.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Internet Is Not Your Doctor

I'm already a sad disappointment, but there's no reason that you have to be like me. It's really quite simple: If you see me doing something wrong, then you must do the opposite. A case-in-point is what happened this past weekend. Let me set this up for you: My work week did not end in its usual fashion - last-minute bad news pouncing onto Friday afternoon and bedeviling my weekend psyche. Add to that a weekend with no real planned structure and I was in a very happy place. I looked forward to the weekend and it, apparently, was happy to see me, too.

Now the only possible obstacle on my weekend runway was a minor physical ailment. I spent all day Friday with mild stomach pains - really, just sore muscles - that I attributed to an overzealous visit to the gym the night before. By dinnertime the pains had localized and (slightly) intensified in my lower right abdomen, but I was still under the impression that Age + Exercise = Soreness.

Remember this for it is a key point in the story.

Pains aside, my wife, my son, and I made a trip to local cineplex that evening to take in a showing of Tintin. The movie was quite a lot better than I expected and the theater was completely free of anyone chatting or texting during the movie. This good fortune was tempered by those stomach pains - now growing intense enough that concentrating on Tintin took some doing.

By the time we arrived back home that evening, I was pretty convinced that I was dealing with something more than sore stomach muscles. It was painful to simply walk and breathe. Finding a comfortable sitting position was proving elusive. My happy weekend was becoming compromised so, being a good geek, it was time to consult the Internet.

I'm pretty good at Internet research. When I need answers, I try to find as many different sources as I can, suss out the zeitgeist and, behold, there are my answers. So let me net this out: when the Internet considered my lower right abdominal pain along with a few secondary (imagined?) symptoms, it became all pretty clear that I had appendicitis. And when I say 'pretty clear' I actually mean 'fairly certain'. And, of course, I made sure I understood all of the surgical techniques and recovery details that I would need for the inevitable trip to the hospital.

I did not immediately share the Internet's diagnosis with my wife, offering her only the assurance that I had cramps and they would go away with a Tylenol-3 and a good night's sleep. While the pill took some of the edge off, I still laid sleepless in bed the entire night trying to find a comfortable position while mulling over the idea that someone would have to cut into my guts to remove the pain.

With that much time and worry to consider, the mind fixates. I began to imagine what the coming days had in store. I wondered how many needles I'd get (I hate needles). I wondered who would get to shave the incision area (likely the oldest, scariest nurse they could find). I wondered how many weeks I'd get to miss work while recuperating (2 to 3, says the Internet).

Saturday morning came. I was no better off and a lot more fatigued. The day was one long out-of-focus camp-out in front of the TV - alternating between restless catnaps and reality programming. I ate nothing and drank only water. My wife offered time and time again to take me to a clinic while I resisted (time and time again). I checked and re-checked my medical research. All signs continued to point to the appendix. The Internet was only too happy to determine how long I could stall before the risk of peritonitus was too high (42 to 78 hours from on-set, give or take).

As Saturday morning became afternoon and then evening, I sat in my chair and gave in to the notion that I would need to be cut open - and soon. There was no hiding from it. But the wimp in me decided it would wait until Sunday. I would get up and have my wife drive me somewhere - maybe straight to the hospital. I drifted off into another uneasy catnap while, outside, the skies debated how many grey clouds it needed to match my mood.

By dinnertime Saturday, things changed. A few hours of actual sleep had done something wonderful. I was rested and, miracle of miracles, my lower right abdomen was somewhat less painful! It wasn't the imaginings of a man avoiding the chance to be sliced apart by science. It was actual recovery! As evening turned into nighttime, my stomach ailments all but disappeared. I didn't wish to jinx my luck by saying the Internet had been wrong, but the thought, incomprehensibly, was there in the back of my mind.

Sunday morning brought almost a full recovery, albeit a tender one. I could only think of myself doing some kind of Ebenezer Scrooge panto: flinging open the window and shouting my miracles to first unlucky soul who came along. Since I'm not typically given to such displays, I could only give my wife reassurances and resolve that I would live each day as though it were my last. Starting with Sunday, it would be Me 2.0.

The Internet wasn't done with me yet. Me 2.0 had planned to spend quality time with my PC to do a bit of video editing. My PC, having other plans, decided to chew up a hard drive and swallow all of my in-progress video bits. Back to the Internet, I spent hours chasing rumours and lies about how I could rescue my videos and maybe triage my hard drive. Like phantom appendicitis, all I ended up with was too many lost hours and vague memories of happier times. And suddenly, the weekend, my happy weekend, was dead and gone - buried in scores of URLs and questionable advice from total strangers.

So the Internet is not my Doctor, nor is it yours. But we both know that next time we feel a twinge in our joints, the next time we need to know if a certain hotel is vermin free, the next time we need advice about the important decisions in our lives, the Internet will there waiting for us. And we'll be there, too.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Skin Deep

The Caribbean highlight reel continues: At the island of St. Thomas, we decided we should try a little open-water snorkeling, which is a tourist staple, of course. The idea here is that you pays your money and you get ferried a few miles out to sea where your (hopefully) expert Captain outfits you with fins, a mask, a snorkel, and a lifetime of experience before throwing you overboard to meet some fish.

As often happens in my family, there was disagreement in selecting an appropriate excursion - the majority of these involving a leisurely half-day on a catamaran with complimentary rum and sunburns. This is where my wife and daughter wanted to spend their time. My son and I felt the need for speed and were more interested in the Captain Nautica rock'n'roll powerboat snorkeling excursion.

So, we split up for the day - the ladies reclining on their catamaran while the The Boy and I signed on to Captain Nautica's crew. In the end, I think my son and I made the better decision. We started early in the morning and, since we were taking a very fast powerboat, we were able to make the 18-mile journey to Turtle Bay, Buck Island long before any other snorklers. As a result, we had some ocean and Green Sea Turtles all to ourselves.

   
Our boat disgorging snorklers (The Boy is furthest on the left).

 
Swimming over some curious turtles.
Curiouser yet.
The Boy, his turtle friend, and a bad re-enactment of 'Free Willy'.
After 45 minutes or so in the water with these creatures, we dragged ourselves back into the boat to make a second stop on the opposite side of Buck Island where there was a sheltered bay. There we attracted various smaler fish with bits of melon rind, saw a shipwreck, and even got Barry the Barracuda to pose for pictures.

The Boy summons his horde.
Gliding over a shipwreck.
Clever Barry waits under the hull of our boat.
In contrast, the ladies barely saw just one turtle and only got to snorkel in one location. That said, they got all the rum they could drink. And that ain't bad.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sell You Pictures, I Can

You need to read the title above in your very best Yoda voice. Practice it a few times before you read any further. Be patient - this will all make sense in a moment or two.

So I've been away, chasing warmer breezes somewhere south with my family. We spent a few days at DisneyWorld and then floated towards a Caribbean New Year's Eve on the Disney Magic. In the past, I would have written a post for each day of such a journey, but not this time. I think we're going to go with a highlight reel - in no particular order - of things done and seen that might be half-ways interesting.

Let's start on the island of St. Maarten. Like pretty much every Caribbean island, St. Maarten caters to the cruise crowd's affinity for shopping. And that means a shopping district just steps away from the gangplank where vitamin-D deprived North Americans and Europeans can pick up high-end jewellery on the cheap. I don't why this is or how it started, but I'm talking about entire streets where jewellery stores stand shoulder to shoulder, selling diamonds and gold at prices that are (apparently) very reasonable.

I'm not a shopper, let alone a shopper interested in jewellery, but after we had finished our family trek down a rainforest trail that morning, my son and I dutifully followed my wife and daughter down such a shopping street. While the ladies poked around in store after store, us menfolk simply shifted our butts from one shady bench to the next, passing the time by sweating and looking for free wifi.

Positive that there was nothing on that street that spoke to our manly interests, we spied something very much out of context:

This picture is stolen from the Web. It's better than the one I took!


We found Yoda Guy. On a Caribbean island, in a shopping oasis full of diamonds and gold, we found Yoda Guy. Perplexed and slightly dizzy from the heat, we had to check out this Yoda Guy.

You can read Yoda Guy's story here, but the short version is this: Nick Maley was part of the creative crew that built the Yoda puppets for the Star Wars movies. At some point in his career as a movie artist, he, along with his wife Gloria, ended up on the island of St. Maarten. There they run Planet Paradise, selling movie memorabilia and Maley's artwork, along with running a movie museum in the same building.

My family and I had to check this out, of course. We're geeks. Walking in the front door, we found a winding staircase lined with photos and explanations of Maley's movie work - mostly Star Wars related stuff. At each step leading up to their store, we grew a little more excited at the prospect of maybe, just maybe, taking home a little piece of Star Wars and maybe, just maybe, hearing a really juicy Carrie Fisher anecdote from Yoda Guy. See what I mean:

Just inside the front door.

Further front door clarifications.
I cannot disagree with this.
Up the final flight of stairs towards the gallery.
It was at the top of the stairs that things got weird(er) and any visual evidence got lost. We first encountered a full Stormtrooper costume in a glass display case. There was a sign on the case that read something like this:

If you'd like to have your picture taken with the Stormtrooper, 
we'd be happy to open the case for $7.

Unsettling, we thought. Were they really charging a fee for a picture with this costume? And how did they arrive at $7? Why not $5. Or maybe $10?

Further down the hallway we entered the store proper. It was more or less a small art gallery with a display case in the center of the room and a sales counter in the corner. In that display case was a life-sized statue of Yoda and, again, we encountered a helpful sign:

Photography is reserved for Customers!

I put my camera away at this point. I got the fact that cameras in an art gallery might not be a good thing, but the sign added to my 'unsettled' feeling about the place. From the counter behind us there was a "Welcome" from Gloria Maley. Friendly enough, she launched into a pitch that I'm sure she has given hundreds of times. The upshot was this: there was all kinds of stuff for sale in the store and the price was not carved in stone. Since we were tourists from a cruise ship, we could get an additional discount. Now, if we spent $39 or more as a family, we could go into the museum for free. If we didn't spend $39 or more, we could still make a $15 'donation' and go through the museum anyways.

The word 'donation' seemed interesting, so I asked her about it. Their goal, said Gloria, was to raise enough money to be able to buy the building next door and turn it into a re-creation of the Mos Eisley cantina from Star Wars. It was unclear to me what they would do with a cantina, although I supposed it would involve a fee. I just chuckled and assured Gloria that theirs was a noble goal.

Free to peruse Planet Paradise, here's what I noticed:
  • We were the only people in the store
  • From what I could see, the memorabilia amounted to framed, photocopied pages out of a Star Wars script, autographed by Nick
  • There were the odd bits of Star Wars trading cards and comic books
  • There were pencil drawings of Tauntauns and the like, all done by Nick
  • There were some pieces of original art done by Nick, all Caribbean themed
  • Nothing had a price tag that I could see
  • The museum entrance was a rather dark doorway off the side of the store, which suggested that the museum was likely quite smallish
  • Pictures from inside the museum suggested it was pretty much a collection of costumes from Star Wars and a number of other movies
It wasn't too long - like 45 seconds or so - before Han Solo's words were in my head, "I've got a bad feeling about this." There seemed to be no actual memorabilia to be had - at least none that interested me. The vibe in the place felt a little bit grasping. I realize that people need to make a living, but the requests for money felt a little icky (although I'm open to better words here).

I decided that we needed to leave (nothing to see, move along...). Being the only people in the store, and under the watchful eye of Gloria, we would need to use a subtle bit of shuffling towards the door before making our break for daylight. But there was a problem. My kids were on the other side of the gallery and, as I strolled over to whisper a few words to them, Yoda Guy himself emerged from the back room.

Now, I found Nick to be a very nice chap, but his first few words after "Hello" were basically a repeat of the instructions we had just received from Gloria. When I mentioned the fund-raising plans for the next-door cantina, Nick chuckled a bit and called the whole thing 'his folly'. I searched my brain for a Star Wars question to fill the oncoming conversational void, but Nick had already wandered off to confer with Gloria. It was our opening! The four of us quickly, but coolly, made our way back down the stairs and out the door.

I admit feeling a a bit disappointed with myself afterwards, like maybe I should have bought a little something. Nick and Gloria Maley seemed like nice-enough people trying to make a living for themselves on a lovely little island. Maybe I shouldn't have been so turned-off by the fact they were so very up-front about 'money for something'. But in the end, it was all very off-putting. I wish them well and I hope they build their cantina someday (all without a visit from a LucasArts lawyer). And if "Nick's folly" ever becomes reality, I'd like to pay a visit and hear that juicy Carrie Fisher story over a cold mug of Jawa Beer.