Happy New Year

31 12 2014

Pretty much everyone I met in the park today wished me a Happy New Year. It’s a nice thought I suppose – but it’s not the New Year yet. I’m still enjoying the old one. I’ve got used to it now. It feels comfortable. Somehow the phrase feels more hollow than “Merry Christmas” too. Given a sufficient alcohol quotient, a (very) Merry Christmas is perfectly achievable and relatively independent of one’s religious perspective… assuming alcohol falls within the rules you have chosen to follow.

A Happy New Year requires something of a more concerted effort though. 365.25 days (on average) of happiness is quite a long streak for even the most content of individuals. It’s hard enough to maintain the initial excitement from arriving at one’s holiday destination for two weeks, let alone an entire year.

Of course, the words don’t really mean what they say. We’re not really being offered an entire year of happiness. It’s more of a time sensitive greeting along the lines perhaps of “Cheers!” or “Top of the morning to you!” – just one that we feel more willing to offer to complete strangers. In that regard at least, it is actually more powerful than the literal words uttered. It is a means of reaching out to another human being to say “I acknowledge you, and wish you no harm. Maybe even some positive things, if it’s not too inconvenient for me personally.”

We share this spinning pebble of blue and green and whether we’re personally here for another few decades, a year or just one more precious minute – rejoice!

Remember – one in seven dwarves are Happy!

Image: The Disney Wiki

Too Rich For Us

23 12 2014

I mentioned elsewhere that a few of us got together to have a drink with an old colleague that was visiting from out of town. We tried to go for eats at The Flying Pig in Gastown, but the wait for a table (on a Monday night) was too long. OK, OK, so perhaps we should have taken into account the lead up to Christmas… fair point.


The Flying Pig

The Flying Pig

So anyway, on we went, five gents in search of sustenance. We eventually alighted on Wildebeest, also of Gastown. They managed to find us a table straight away, and the greeter was very friendly. We perused the menu and I was quite taken with it. “Meat centric” is how they describe it. I was all set to try the horse tartare until I realised it was only a starter. Main-course prices but for starter-sized portions. In the end we left after only a beer. I had the Dry Stout from Persephone Brewing Company on the Sunshine Coast – highly recommended! I am sure the menu prices were worth the ambiance and quality ingredients on offer, but it isn’t really the place for a lads night out.

I will try and find a more fitting occasion to try it again – I have to say the menu resulted in Pavlovian reactions. You know – watering mouth; instinctive clenching of your wallet.

Wildebeest Starters

Wildebeest Starters


23 12 2014

I am no fan of bottled water.

Here in the West where we have easy access to plentiful clean safe drinking water it is a shameful waste of plastic and logistics infrastructure. Every plastic disposable water bottle – even if it is ultimately recycled – is the result of a bottling plant, a trucking and/or rail journey and a few minutes of “aren’t I cool, drinking Naïve  – oops, sorry, got it backwards: Evian – water?”

That said, I always enjoy a cool advertising campaign. Especially with hamsters. Jazz I can forgive.

Knee-jerk Jerk

22 12 2014

A few days ago I went to collect number one child from the airport. She was returning for the Christmas holidays from university out East. I bumped into an old colleague from a previous company, and he was keen to make sure I was going to attend a get-together the next night to celebrate the arrival in town of a mutual friend who now lived with his wife in Toronto. We arranged to meet at his new place in Gastown first to have a couple of warm-up drinks before heading off for dinner. I fully expected to arrive a bit later than the arranged 6pm kick-off, but as it happened I managed to finish off my tasks at the office and was actually slightly early as I set off from the SkyTrain station to try and locate his place in Gastown.

For those of you not familiar with Vancouver, Gastown is named after “Gassy Jack” who arguably founded what became today’s Vancouver. It’s a bit of a tourist trap with its steam-powered clock (which was shrouded when I was there) and purveyors of made-in-China baubles and trinkets. It’s also home to many amazing eateries and watering holes, and borders on the less salubrious “Downtown Eastside” or DTES. This is a less touristy place which is “home” to the homeless and many of Vancouver’s less fortunate residents. Inevitably there’s a little “leakage” and it’s not uncommon to be accosted by several homeless people whilst walking in Gastown. The vast majority are polite and will wish you a good day whether or not they receive anything from an encounter. A few, as in any large town, are a little brusque, but it is a rare exception in my experience.

That said, it is patently true that most such people have issues related to substance abuse, though some are merely struggling to get back on their feet and could benefit from a decent meal and a permanent place to stay. A typical request might be “could you spare me the price of a cup of coffee/burger” or potentially the price of a Transit ticket. In my more naive days I have been known to give a ticket-less would-be transit rider the price of a ticket and watch them march directly away from the SkyTrain station. I know of several people who have offered hot food to people pan-handling “for the price of a meal” and literally had it thrown at them… presumably because it does not provide the high that they really seek.

It was with this somewhat jaundiced background that I stiffened myself as I headed through Gastown. Shuffling towards me was a shabby looking guy. As predicted, he asked me if I would buy him a coffee. I gave my knee-jerk response of “sorry mate, I don’t have any change” (which is conveniently usually true – being primarily a credit card user), I was wished a pleasant evening which is often the case in Vancouver, and I marched on without a break in my stride. It was probably 25 metres further on that my mind replayed the brief interchange. I had not – as assumed – been asked for the price of a cup of coffee, but an actual cup of coffee. My lack of willingness to support self-harm through illicit drugs, and my in-built prejudice towards “the typical homeless guy from the DTES” had blinded me to the simplest of human requests for help – a warm drink on what promised to be a rather chilly evening. Suddenly feeling sick to my stomach at the blasé manner in which I’d brushed off this gentleman, I quite literally spun on my heel. The exchange had taken place directly outside a Starbucks café (which I’d not even noticed in my determined march to my evening of conviviality). The man was nowhere to be seen, and I do not exaggerate when I felt a little shiver of cold and something of the “visitation of Christmases Past” vibe.

My reflex response to the usual request for cash had proved my self-righteous self-deceit for what it was. Pure hypocrisy. The man had asked me quite plainly for a physical cup of coffee. Something that I tell myself I would be willing to offer, but not cash, which could be used to buy less savoury substances. My judgemental expectation that he would ask for money had deafened me to a simple human request for a warm drink. Something that my comfortable existence had withheld so trivially.

I am not at peace with myself at present.

Too Much Information and the Tooth Fairy

19 12 2014

Once upon a lifetime ago, I used to write computer programmes for a living. All kinds of interesting stuff from video imaging through satellite communications to air traffic control training systems. All this gave me wide and reasonably deep knowledge of what computers were capable of achieving. The power they commanded and the great things they could do. There was only one small problem really… they were programmed by people just like me, complete with problems at home, sleepless nights with small children, over-indulging at parties, all those things that make being human worth it.

Ever since that small epiphany I’ve tried to ignore the fact that modern commercial aircraft “fly by wire“. They are such complex machines that it is no longer possible to fly them using pulleys and wires. They need computers… programmed by fallible humans. Every time I sit in an aeroplane seat I am putting my life in the hands of people who wrote code for a living. Just as I had. Having seen what’s behind the Kimono as it were, the greatness of these engineers somehow didn’t seem so magical. They were just as likely to have made errors as anyone else. If this were not the case, the firmware in these aeroplanes would still be v1.0. Though I have no inside knowledge, I would wager a small sum that no aircraft flying today has firmware that is not significantly more advanced in evolution than v1.0. Every increment the result of “Oops – that’s not supposed to happen. We’d better fix that!”

Several years on, I find myself the proud father of three offspring. The two eldest are at university out east. Number one child is studying “Life Sciences” at University of Waterloo, and is almost as proud as I am of her 87% average. She is hoping to become an optometrist, and scored in the 98th percentile in the entrance test for the post-graduate school. Not entirely sure where she acquired her smarts, but she’s definitely a lot better at studying than I ever was.

Anyway, one doesn’t get to score so highly in life sciences at one of Canada’s leading seats of learning without picking up a thing or two and having an enquiring mind to-boot. Imagine then the scene when she went to see the surgeon yesterday in preparation for today’s wisdom tooth removal procedure…

After the usual “blah blah” session to justify his additional fee over and above the surgery itself, he innocently asked if she had any questions. I had pre-warned her not to enquire too aggressively as he would have her anaesthetised and at his mercy for an extended period today. She may wake up with an unwanted tattoo for example! She wasn’t in there too long yesterday, so I guess he didn’t face the full inquisition. She seemed satisfied with his answers about lack of intubation, the difference between sedation and anaesthetic, and deigned to attend the actual surgery today, so I guess he passed muster.

Today, her sister and I dropped her off and went to enjoy a cup of Murchie’s Russian Caravan tea and order her pharmaceuticals whilst she went under the knife. Only half an hour later we returned and I was led into the room to collect her. She was fully conscious and her face was slightly reminiscent of Brando’s Godfather character. It quickly turned out that this was due to gauze wads in her cheeks to absorb any short term bleeding, and not due to any swollen flesh per se. I was then given a bewildering torrent of instructions and warnings about mouth-wash and alcohol (none – it prematurely dissolves the sutures), brushing (only after tomorrow), pain management (high dose 292: aspirin-based codeine analgesics, with a touch of caffeine to fend off drowsiness) and bruise management (apply cold for 48 hours – at a rate of 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off, then heat).

During this entire lecture (through which time I was not allowed to take notes or read what I was assured was a concise pre-typed version for later perusal) number one offspring sat awake and apparently alert. I occasionally made eye contact and even winked in reassurance. She occasionally prodded her lip then muttered something. She then spoke more clearly “Oh I can talk!” She then muttered what I took to be a reminder for me to ask about sneezing. Having read dire warnings of dislodging early blood clots over the now vacant wisdom tooth sites by using straws or over-zealously spitting toothpaste, she had conceived a situation (in her high powered brain) that had not been covered in the pre-reading literature. She had specifically asked me to remind her to ask about it, so I did it on her behalf since my no-gauzed mouth was somewhat more easily understood. What about sneezing? Might this also dislodge the clots? How was this to be avoided? The question, it seems, was not having its first airing, and a quick response that it was best to try and keep ones mouth open during the sneeze (is there any other way?) was duly delivered. After a discrete warning that she might seem “really drunk” for a few minutes longer, number two offspring was summoned, help was rendered to dress the patient in her cardigan and coat, and we were discretely ushered to a back exit (presumably so we would not distress any pre-operation visitors with the horrors to come.)

We then meandered like a post party exodus of shame towards the car and safely belted number one offspring into the seat. In a sudden panic she said we’d forgotten to ask about the sneezing dilemma. I assured her that we’d asked and that the answer was clear. Swearing blind that this must have occurred whilst she was asleep a second panic quickly ensued involved knowing who might have dressed her and when. Over the course of the afternoon, it was necessary to reassure her no less than four times that we knew the answer to the sneeze issue and that she had indeed been present when the answer was originally provided, that she had not teleported directly from the doctor’s chair to the living room of the house and that she was in fact still sans tattoo.

Somewhere along the way, she had apparently insisted on keeping her wisdom teeth “for the Tooth Fairy”, and seemed to think that a sum of $100 was a fair price. Now sensation is returning to her face and “normal service” is being resumed mentally she has naturally taken to reading the sheaves of paper that the pharmacy is obliged to impart alongside the three tubs of tablets that the witch doctor prescribed. In combination the antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and analgesics seem to offer an opportunity for pretty much every option of death imaginable by the author of the warnings. Plainly they were in possession of a very thick medical dictionary indeed!

The final torture for the household of the detail oriented offspring? The tablets require a schedule of 6 hours, inevitably requiring one dose to be sometime during the night. Whilst you or I, being more practical than literal, might say “bugger that – I’ll take one first thing, one last thing, and the other two when I remember – sometime during the day,” she has set her phone’s alarm so that she may wake and (as per instructions) have something to eat in the wee hours so she may take the fourth tablet on schedule “with food”.

Gods bless modern medicine…

Get Your Geek On…

10 12 2014

Are you old enough to have played with Tektronix analogue oscilloscopes at high school?


You haven’t lived…

Just because you’re an arsehole doesn’t make you racist

6 12 2014

So we went to get a pile of groceries today. We went to Langley because we like the food selection available in Real Canadian Superstore (Loblaw). (To my knowledge there isn’t a Pretend Canadian Superstore, before you ask.) It’s been a while, and they’ve changed things up a bit. The pricing is a bit – how shall I put it? – sneaky!

There’s now often two prices on the shelf for an item, so you need your wits about you. It may have price A in a large font, then below it there is price B in a smaller font. Alongside this higher price B is one of two statements. (i) If you buy the item individually instead in sets of perhaps 3 or 6, then you pay the higher price per item. (ii) if you buy more than a maximum number of the item, perhaps 2 or 4, then you pay the higher price.

For some reason I was overcome with the urge to try tinned chilli. Not quite sure what came over me. There was a bewildering array of options, brands and prices. And you guessed it – they all had these weird two-tier prices. Should I buy a single tin? Was it worth taking a chance that I’d really like it and buy 6 tins to get the lower price? That tin is more expensive but only needs 2 others to trigger the lower price. Ah… my brain hurts!

It was whilst contemplating these decidedly first world problems that my mental calculations were disturbed by a most un-Canadian event. I missed the trigger. Perhaps someone rudly barging past a fellow shopper. Perhaps some impolite glance. Whatever the initial cause, I heard very loud and close behind me a woman saying “What did you say? I’m not from Surrey you fucking racist. Say it to my face!”

For those of you not resident in the Lower Mainland of BC, Surrey is the second largest city, sprawling out to the East of Vancouver. It has a cosmopolitan make-up, but undeniably has one of the regions larger concentrations of Punjabi Indians. This makes for an amazing selection of restaurants, and some bizarrely large houses. I myself live at the southern end of Surrey where it meets White Rock. Despite its diverse cultures and many successful businesses, it is not without its problem areas and drug crime (primarily Marijuana grow-ops). These things have led to such unfair stigmas as “Better safe than Surrey” and “Brown Town” to name a few. As an ex-pat from the UK, I have to say that it is still way safer than pretty much any European city I have visited. Racism is real, to be sure, but it’s nothing compared to the skin-head days I witnessed as a youth in the UK’s 70s.

So anyway, I turned to see a young woman of Indian extraction (with a very Canadian accent) wearing typical weekend “daggy” clothes – hoody jacket and black leggings. She was with a middle aged Indian lady whom I took to be her mother. Facing off with her was a white guy in his 30s wearing a lumberjack shirt and accompanied by a pretty Philippino lady of similar age – better dressed than the rest of us put together.

Obviously unable to “let it lie”, the guy took umbrage at being called a racist, and said so. This presumably was accompanied with gesticulations towards his Philippino companion. I say presumably, because my English genes kicked back in, and I had entered my little bubble containing myself and the pricing dilemma of tinned chilli. My back was therefore once more turned on the scene in the hopes that it would simply dissolve and go away. But no. What we had here was “young lady with massive chip on shoulder” vs. “hurt male ego in front of girlfriend”.

The guy said he had assumed she was from Surrey not because of her ethnic origin but because of her “ghetto clothes”. She seemed well-versed in Anglo-Saxon profanity, questioned his education, and generally showed a most unladylike handling of the situation. Her poor mother, whom I felt completely sorry for, was struggling to keep her in check, and to let things go.

Eventually I settled on 2 tins of Campbell’s steak chilli, though I’m not convinced I’d made the right choice. As the air cleared, I saw a group of around 5 youngish Indian guys wearing turbans and carefully watching the lumberjack shirt retreating to continue his shopping. This could have turned very ugly indeed, it seemed. A minute or two later, I encountered the guy talking to what appeared to be his father – similarly dressed in checked padded shirt. He seemed proud of his “argument with that lady”. His use of “lady” did not imply any inherent distaste for the woman.

I found the whole thing fascinating. Presumably the young lady had slighted the guy in some way – perhaps by barging past or something equally innocent. He had made some comment about her “going back to Surrey”. He’d intended this as a comment on her clothing. She’d jumped to the assumption it was a racist attack and verbally lashed out. The guy felt the need to defend himself against the accusation of being racist. Both seemed to agree that coming from Surrey was a bad thing.

I’m an immigrant. I live in Surrey. On reflection, perhaps they were both attacking me!

Of Saints and Sinners

6 12 2014

Funny how we like to draw opposites – real or imaginary – isn’t it? Us and them. It’s become quite an artistic device.

Of Mice and Men. A book I had to read at school. A classic. So great, we studied it for weeks… and I can’t remember anything about it, except some guy dies at the end. I don’t actually remember whether mice played any part, but I strongly suspect not. 🙂 So… perhaps not so great after all? At least not if you’re 12 and consider the prime value of English literature to be in guiding you towards the correct construction of your Airfix model.

Of Monsters and Men. Great indie band out of Iceland. Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir has an amazing voice I think. You know, the Icelandic music scene has produced some wonderful talent over the years. Well, OK, so really there was just Björk… but she was in the Sugarcubes first, so that’s almost three you’ve potentially heard of!

So, of saints and sinners then. The saints in this piece are the good folks at Marks & Spencer.


Wikipedia: M&S logo

For those not familiar, Marks and Sparks is the good old, solid, “go to” chain in the UK. They apparently had stores here in Canada until just before we immigrated here, so we just missed them. For about a year or so after we arrived you could get M&S biscuits, jam and the like at one or two supermarket chains, but I suspect that was just the logistic chain draining itself out to the general market. Obviously I’ve been out of touch for a decade and a half now, but it certainly used to be the place to get “sensible” clothes. Underwear that would outlast the wearer. Indestructible elastic. Reliable shoes. School trousers, work jumpers, that sort of thing. Nothing flash, just solid, high quality basics.

They also built their success partly on their no nonsense high quality customer service. Never an argument about returns, exchanges, etc. Well known amongst shop-lifters for accepting items for refund with no receipt. Outstanding, well respected customer service. Second to none.

From 1928 onwards, they used St. Michael as their in-house brand, to honour one of the founders, Michael Marks (who was actually Jewish, but then so was Jesus I suppose). More saintliness.


Wikipedia: St. Michael logo

Anyway, you’ve no doubt noticed that Christmas is approaching. Even if, like me, you’ve given up on broadcast TV and now find your advert free entertainment on Netflix or other streamed media, you must surely be bombarded with the contradictory images associated with the season in every shop window. Sadly, the US Thanksgiving shopping frenzy has now spilled over into Canada (which has its own Thanksgiving, a month earlier) and even the UK – which has no equivalent at all (unless you include the low-key Harvest Festival that is still celebrated in churches up and down the land.) Any excuse for a sale, I suppose.

So, in amongst all this, my dear mother – still resident in Blighty – calls us up and offers to send us some M&S goodies for Christmas, since they’re offering free shipping worldwide during the imported US Thanksgiving sales. Being from Yorkshire, free anything is a definite attraction, and suggestions for presents from the M&S website were duly made. Since the shipping was free, my mum decided to order and send the presents separately so that we could each open our own package, rather than getting a single consolidated shipment. Free shipping – why not? [By the way… there are five of us.]

M&S used the Royal Mail for shipping last year. Items duly showed up in the post via Canada Post at this end, or if they were too large and nobody was in, you popped up to the local post office and collected it at your convenience. No fuss or nonsense, and – you guessed it – it was free shipping last year too!

So – enter the sinners.

For this part in the epic Christmas pantomime, we shall use DHL, as these are the people M&S have chosen to provide their free shipping this year.


Wikipedia: DHL logo

Now I knew DHL was German (D for Deutsch), I didn’t know they had been bought up by the German Post Office though. Actually, in fairness, they use local courier agencies to do their drop deliveries, so the remainder of the tale is really only their fault as far as the stationary that’s used, and their chosen local business partners.

So anyway, a couple of days after the free shipping is invoked by my saintly mother the first two parcels arrive! Amazing service, one might think, and so it seemed. Great Teutonic efficiency, even if sub-contracted. Unfortunately, as can sometimes be the case, there was nobody in. They dutifully left a little pre-printed note apologising for missing us, and assuring us they’d try again next day. The problem was though, there would be fees of $37 and $43 for the parcels.

Now, though the kindly Canadian customs organisation are quite good at turning a blind eye for a few tens of dollars here and there crossing over from the US as part of a day’s sightseeing trip, they draw the line at tobacco goods, alcohol, and excessive piss-taking in the form of wide screen TVs and other expensive items. The fact that these two parcels had import duty to pay was half-expected and not in and of itself a surprise. The fact it was almost $80 for the pair though seemed to imply that my mother had been unusually generous. (Don’t forget that she’d also already paid the UK government a VAT of 20% on these goods.) Anyway, we were excited now, so my wife stayed in the next afternoon. Unfortunately the dog was crossing her legs desperate to go for a walk and in the 15 minutes they were out of the house, we missed the second attempt. Attempt 3 happened before my wife was even back home from work the next day, so in desperation she went online to find out where we could pick it up, instead. And here things take a twist…

Online we discover two things. (i) we can offer an alternative delivery location. Great! We entered my work address where someone is ALWAYS available to accept deliveries. There’s even various options including the one we selected: “please leave at reception.” Discovery (ii) was less pleasant, but explained my mother’s apparent generosity. There was indeed import duty to pay on the items. Oh well, that’s the way it is. But the duty was only a fraction of the amount to pay…

One item, valued at ~CAD$70  incurred import duty of $12.71. Not outrageous, all things considered.

However, then the provincial and federal taxes are added. A total of 12% on the value (already including UK paid taxes of 20%) plus the import duty. This comes to an additional $10.

Not satisfied with this, there is then an additional $10 flat rate fee from the courier for “processing”.

Then, just to add insult to injury, there is a fee of $4.25 because it’s “cash on delivery”. Free shipping, but still cash on delivery. Again – straight into the pocket of the local courier on behalf of DHL. $4.25, though annoying is reasonable for an agency to be inconvenienced for having to collect and verify payment on behalf of the government I suppose. The thing is… it’s not waived when the recipient goes to the trouble – as we did – to pay online and therefore avoid the inconvenience on behalf of the courier.

Oh well, at least we’d paid the fees now, and we’re safe in the knowledge that no matter what time the parcels are delivered, they’ll be signed for at work, and handed over.

Except they’re not.

Nope. We get home and find they’ve just been left on the front step for anyone to take. So much for using the online system to change the delivery address and explicitly select “leave at reception”. I guess now the government fees are collected and the courier on behalf of DHL has gouged us an additional $14.25, they no longer care whether we actually receive the items or not!

Now fuming that DHL and the local agent on their behalf have been totally cavalier with the parcels and gouged deeply for the pleasure of undergoing the risk of having some local oik steal them before we even get to open them, my wife emails the service operation of the hitherto blameless M&S. After a very laudibly short delay, the reply comes back.

Tough shit.

Of course, much more wordy (and in arguably less grammatically correct English), but essentially – that’s the way it is.

Seems things really have slid in the bastion of great service hitherto known as Marks and Spencer. The UK-resident shopper is blissfully unaware that by accepting the offer of free shipping on their Christmas presents to ex-pat friends and family, they’re actually surprising the recipient with a gift of paying over 50% of the original price, just to receive it! (The other parcel was slightly less at 48% – $43.68 on a gift of $89.35.)

Remember – the gifts were sent separately because it was free shipping. That small act of genuine thoughtfulness cost us an additional $14.25.

Daylight robbery!

Latest in the line…

5 12 2014

So Air Canada are not what you’d call that innovative. A bit like Microsoft, they are good at following the leaders, but doing a good job at it since the leaders have learnt the mistakes to avoid.

After feel-good videos from WestJet and KLM, Air Canada has jumped on the bandwagon. This time they offered Canucks exiled in London a free trip home for Christmas.


[Edit: I forgot Zappos/Jet Blue]

The smart mouse with the half-human brain – New Scientist

3 12 2014

I’ve written this before, I’ll write it again now:

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should!

So now they’ve managed to successfully inject human brain bits into mice. Guess what? Just like whole humans, human brain bits generally took over their environment and displaced the existing mouse brain bits. Result? “Smarter” mice. (All things are relative). These humanised mice have memories that are improved by four times.

Yegods… have these scientists never read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake? She makes a big deal of the stance that her books are not science fiction, but rather speculative fiction. She says everything in the trilogy could very easily happen because all the underlying mechanisms are already in place. One storyline involves implanting human brain tissue into pigs. Result? Pigs that can outsmart humans to deadly effect. Now imagine that in an animal that can breed as prodigiously as a mouse. They’ve got a lot of mouse traps to get revenge for! And just think how smart Jerry already was, when pitted against Tom!

I’m terrified…

The smart mouse with the half-human brain – health – 01 December 2014 – New Scientist.