I try

24 02 2015

Tick tock goes the clock.

The Vancouver Sun Run is not getting further away, and I’ve been trying to keep up some sort of training regime. Gym a few times a week; running the rest of it; a hike at the weekend…

I did a half-decent hike on Saturday, but have been a bit lazy since then. Even my nagging FitBit hasn’t been successful in breaking my fug. I’ve been a bit low emotionally lately and that never helps with motivation.

Today though, I managed to cajole myself out for a run. As usual, I put my iPod on random and set off into the night. As I’ve mentioned a few times, there is often a single song that sticks with me as particularly memorable out of the 10 or so that play during my circuit. This time though, I noticed just how many of the tunes were about lost loves, or other forms of self pity. It could of course just be one of those weird statistical things, or it might be a reflection of the type of music I am drawn to.

The song that stood out for me tonight was the lovely Macy Gray and “I try”.

I try to say goodbye and I choke
Try to walk away and I stumble
Though I try to hide it, it’s clear
My world crumbles when you are not here

Nice steady beat though, I shaved almost 5 minutes off my circuit time which was a shock. I’ve been favouring the gym of late and didn’t think my road speed would have been maintained. Seems I was wrong. Now if only I could lose some of the excess weight I’d be quids in…

Trawling youtube to find the official Macy Gray video, I came across Natalie Imbruglia and Alanis Morissette videos. Interesting. They are both frequent visitors to my iPod, so I plainly fit whatever algorithm youtube is using for “if you like this, you’d probably also like…”.

So, as a bonus today, I bring you one of my favourite Alanis tracks – “Everything”. Any song that can begin with I can be an asshole of the grandest kind is right up my street.

I love the self-effacing timbre of much of her music, and the celebration that someone can love you despite everything you are…. or perhaps even because of it.

You see everything, you see every part
You see all my light and you love my dark
You dig everything of which I’m ashamed
There’s not anything to which you can’t relate
And you’re still here

Value to the buyer

22 02 2015

So the other day I had an industrial accident.

Nothing as grandiose as a chemical spill or a Simpsons-like radioactive incident. No – I broke my glasses. I was taking part in a training session with the rest of the Product Management team and doing my bit by carrying an 8’x4′ sheet of 3mm Sintra PVC above my head to avoid knocking over anything in the machine lab. As I slid it off my head onto the printer’s flatbed, the edge caught the arm of my glasses and flipped them onto the concrete floor. Naturally, by the same law of physics that requires toast to land butter-side down, one of the arms snapped making the glasses unusable, despite the lenses themselves being remarkably unscathed.

I consider myself somewhat resourceful, and luckily I was in a laboratory setting which amongst other things offered a broad selection of tapes to select a temporary fix from. I began with some low-tack blue tape, but decided this was a little too geeky given my age and professional position. It wasn’t quite the “full-on” geek nose bridge repair look, but blue tape was far from discreet. I’m just not Hipster enough to carry it off any more. In the end I found some “invisible” tape (it was hard to spot!) with which to affect repairs, and this extra level of discretion put me on for a day or so.

I took a trip out to Langley to enquire at Costco whether they could repair or replace the broken arm. I was even hopeful they might still be under warranty since I’d only had them a few months. Well… about that: it turns out I’d actually bought them 3 years ago, and they were well and truly out of production, let alone warranty. Doesn’t time fly?! These glasses were part of my slow acceptance of the march of time and my first “progressives” – the modern equivalent of bifocals, offering graduated focal length rather than just the traditional far/reading distances. They’re also UV sensitive so I don’t need to bother carrying separate sunglasses around. Anyway, the point is that they were far from cheap (almost twice the cost of my first car, if memory serves) and I was very loathe to replace them if a repair could be had.

Sensing that there was little to no chance that I was going to be persuaded to buy some new frames/lenses, the guy in Costco suggested I try a repair shop all the way out in Burnaby. Though a genuine attempt at being helpful, I didn’t really expect to be anywhere near Burnaby in the foreseeable future and filed the offered business card away. Yesterday however saw me hiking up near Squamish and finishing sufficiently early in the afternoon to be able to detour via Burnaby on the way home.

Having first complimented me on my mad taping skills, the receptionist took the glasses out to the back room for the technician to proffer an opinion regarding a permanent remedy. Turns out that they couldn’t fix the plastic nor replace the entire arms. The suggestion was some major mechanical surgery involving laser welding and replacing parts of the frame, adding new hinges and firmware upgrades. OK – maybe not the last one, but the rest was real. Price: $90, but not until Tuesday. Seeing my face drain of colour at the price, I was assured that the $90 included “free” replacement nose pads. That’s those tiny bits of plastic that stop your glasses sliding off your nose. Woop-di-doo!

I said I’d think about it, and beat a hasty retreat for the door. The next customer – an elderly gentleman – had come in to ask for a replacement screw for his own glasses, and I wondered if his credit rating would cover the gold/platinum screw he was about to be offered.

As I drove home, I pondered the issue. $90 was a chunk of change, but still less than 20% of the price of a replacement pair of glasses, given the transition light sensitive material and the progressive lenses. Then the fixer in me woke up and I realised that the only reason I’d been able to affect such a reasonable temporary fix with a small piece of tape was that the break was overlaid by a steel band as part of the aesthetics of the frame design. Plastic and stainless steel were both good candidates for cyanoacrylate adhesive (Super-glue/Krazy glue), so I made a small detour on the way home and paid a whopping $1.25 for a pack of 4 1g tubes of glue at the local dollar store. The damn stuff only lasts a month after you open it anyway, so 4 1g tubes might actually last a bit longer than a single 3g tube which was the same price. I wonder if anyone ever gets to fix more than one thing with a single tube anyway!

So, a Q-tip dipped in methyl hydrate (“meths” in the UK) – which I keep as fuel for my Trangia camping stove – worked well to degrease and generally prepare the plastic and metal; a couple of drops of the glue applied carefully to the broken surfaces and the surrounding metal bar; and finally a clothes peg to apply pressure until it had properly set… and voila!

Of course, not everyone thinks having a clothes peg stuck on the side of your face is a fashionable look, but I think I can carry it off.

On the transfer of social debt

20 02 2015

Most lunchtimes, I take a brisk walk around a local playing field/park as a deliberate adjunct to my walk to the local café where I dine. Once at the café, I read around 20 pages of my current book, whilst partaking in one of a rotating selection of some lovely home- (well café-) made soups. If you’re interested, today’s was cream of butternut squash. Actually it was cream of butternut squash even if you weren’t interested. Such are the rules of physics.

Anyway, today is a “Pro D” day for many school districts, which basically means the teachers union negotiated a day off for “professional development”. This is where the teachers, instead of transferring learning to their students, are required to attend some course or other themselves, such as “mindfulness” or “how to crush the very soul of your young charges”. The kids however get a day off, and several of them were entertaining themselves in the fresh air in the park. Wonders will never cease! Maybe their TV was broken or something.

Anyway, as I purposefully trudged the path through the park, a couple of kids wobbled towards me on their bikes, and I noticed their father following on foot. He had a plastic carrier bag in his hand, and as the angle of view changed, I saw there was another carrier bag lying on the path just behind him. I asked if it was his, and whether he’d dropped it.
I’m helpful like that.
He looked a little puzzled, glanced back at the bag which he must just have passed himself, and confirmed that no, it wasn’t his.

Of course now, I had inherently accepted responsibility for this bag. He had been happy enough to ignore its littering existence as he passed it. So much so, that he had to look back to see which bag I was referring to. His conscience was clean because the bag simply had not existed when he himself passed it. I however, in my concern for a fellow citizen’s potential loss had quite explicitly acknowledged the presence of the bag. It was there now. Possibly left by Heisenberg’s cat, but plainly there for all to see – except this now departed father. Not that I’d have ignored it had the philosophical encounter not occurred, but now I truly had only one option – to pick it up and place it in an appropriate rubbish bin.

As I proceeded down the path in the bright lunchtime sun, I became aware of the shadow being cast by the bag. It seemed to have some gunk stuck to the outside – perhaps a leaf or something. As I turned the bag and looked down, I saw that the gunk was in actuality a dead mouse. The bag contained (amongst some other odd items) a mouse-trap. The mouse itself was attached in the usual manner (by a spring-loaded wire frame firmly planted across the back of its skull), but via a hole in the bag. It itself was on the outside.

I am still pondering this enigma, but think it most likely a crow had pecked its way through the bag to get at the fresh mousy nibbles within. Anyway, the point is that I was now carrying a dead mouse flapping gaily on the outside of a carrier bag in a park frequented by young kids who these days seem to be more delicate than in times of yore.
Suffice it to say that by some deft bag twizzling, I managed to carry the rodent all the way to a bin without having any little’uns vomit on my work shoes. The rubbish bin, when I finally found it, was slightly alarmingly of the bear-proof variety! And yet so close to IKEA…
Perhaps the crows will try their luck elsewhere.

I matter, allegedly

20 02 2015

Easy to forget our own self-worth when you’re busy meeting expectations of others. Especially the unspoken, self-perceived expectations that might not even exist. They’re the hardest to meet…

The “I MATTER” Motto | Psychology Today.

It’s OK – you can be jealous

14 02 2015

I’ve been in need of a new waterproof for a while, and today’s sojourn to the States took me to REI in Washington State.

Arc’teryx is a Vancouver brand, but this coat is $520 here in BC… and was for sale for $250 in the US. Even with the weak Canadian dollar right now, this was not a deal I could pass up! I never expected to own an item of Arc’teryx gear unless I won the lottery, but this little lovely came home with me today. Even better, REI give you some percentage of your annual purchases back each year as a gift card, if you’re a member.

The border was busy and the Canadian guard didn’t seem to mind when I honestly ‘fessed up to a total of $400 of US purchases. Having been over the line for less than 24 hours one isn’t technically allowed any tax-free purchases, but they only really seem to care about alcohol and tobacco – neither of which I ever buy down there (indeed, I never buy the latter anywhere!).

It’s light as a feather compared with my first Gore-tex purchase 25 years ago: a vintage Berghaus… almost the same colour, by coincidence. It also packs down into next to nothing – a bonus for backpacking. All I need is some dampness to test it out. Being in BC, I don’t expect to wait too long. Perhaps a swift trip to The Chief tomorrow might provide the right circumstance. First born is back from Waterloo for Reading Week, so she can help me test (and pay for the tea afterwards :o) ).

Beta LT Jacket / Men’s / Arc’teryx / Arc’teryx / Arc’teryx.

Arc'teryx: Beta LT Jacket "Sodalite"

Arc’teryx: Beta LT Jacket “Sodalite”

The Non-GMO Project

14 02 2015

Those who know the Quieter Elephant in the real world would be amongst the first to agree I was a bit of a geek. I love technology. But there are limits. I also espouse “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. Falling firmly in this category for me are genetically modified organisms. GMOs.

Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a religious position. Far from it. I don’t have a religion, so it would be a little difficult.

I have a lot of respect for Neil deGrasse Tyson but I’m afraid his stance on genetically modified foods was a bit off target for me. The question asked in the video was specifically about transgenic plants. It was in French though, so I’ll give him the benefit. He gave a totally reasonable monologue about how foods are virtually all genetically modified – in the sense that wheat is a selectively bred form of grass, that cows are selectively bred wild bovine, etc. As far as this goes – I’m with him.

But that’s not the point.

To get from wild grasses to productive wheat fields there were a whole series of ever more productive – genetically naturally viable – intermediate steps. Each step was viable in its own right. Seeds were selected, and the next step grown. In a field. With rain. Same thing with cows. Modern cows could never exist in the wild. They produce unnaturally massive quantities of milk. If they were not milked by humans twice a day they’d likely die. However, each step prior to the modern cow was born naturally of a naturally viable earlier form of cow. Stretching right back to a natural wild cow, producing milk, but at a lower volume.

For me, the important point is that this selective breeding – though technically modifying the genetics of the breed – iterates through a series of intermediate steps that are each naturally “validated”. Each step must be viable in the world we all share. It must be born, survive to an age fit to reproduce and then produce viable offspring.

There are a few exceptions in the plant world where cloning is possible. The word is laden with science fiction potential, but in the plant kingdom it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon every time a branch breaks off and re-roots. It has the exact same DNA as the original plant yet now lives a separate existence. This phenomenon was used to save the ancient, spiritually laden Golden Spruce of Haida Gwaii. It was felled by a disgruntled logging employee, and was thought lost forever – it was a male tree and therefore unable to produce seeds. UBC scientists managed to clone it from cuttings though.

Golden spruce clone

Golden spruce clone

This phenomenon can be used to reproduce plants without the more normal form of seeds being used. This is how the seedless watermelons Tyson refers to are produced, and yes, it is true that in a human-free world they would be highly unlikely to reproduce. Same thing with bananas. Their seeds are not viable any more… for human convenience. However, by and large, our “genetic modifications” are bound by the normal processes of seeds/birth and natural reproduction. Forced, guided, evolution, you might say.

It is true that these processes of selective breeding can lead to some abominations. Just look at the French poodle if you need further argument!

Wikipedia: French poodle

However… they are genetically viable in their own right. “Natural” is a subjective word, but the intermediate steps were at least not creations of some Frankenstein process.

And then we get the “oo, I wonder what would happen if…” brigade. To be fair, some of our most exciting leaps forward have come from “blue sky” ideation. Just trying something to see what happens. Unfortunately though, we are all too capable of creating things that really have no place in our world. Like creating an explosive device capable of generating the heat of a small sun for example. And then trying it out on Japan. And then trying out an even “better” one, just to make sure we got the maths right.

So, whilst I can understand the excitement of seeing what might happen if you take a gene from a firefly, capable of making it luminous, and placing it in a plant, I shudder at what might happen next. This is what I refer to as a GMO. An organism that is genetically modified outside of the natural process. It is true that a few cross-species boundaries can be breached in nature (a mule is a sterile result of cross-breeding a donkey and a horse), but there is no possible natural way a firefly gene could naturally find itself inside a plant. There were no shortage of Kickstarter funders though…

Kickstarter: Glowing Plants

These laboratory procedures don’t merely speed up the process that could be done naturally through careful selective breeding. They break the rules. They merge genes that have no business being merged. This is where my problem lies. Natures checks and balances are being subverted. The natural balance that aborts “unfit” organisms, that sterilises incompatible organisms so that they may not breed further, these are all circumvented. Instead we humans are left as the only arbiter of “valid”. We, who have only inherited this finely tuned ecosystem for the blink of an eye. We who are ourselves an experiment in one solitary line of evolution’s grand enterprise. Yet somehow we ended up with the keys to the entire toolkit. The capability to disrupt the very processes that nature itself has relied on for eons.

Life itself will look back on humans and chuckle. Those silly little hairless apes. They gave the Earth luminous plants, four-legged chickens and perhaps some other things from Margaret Atwood’s all too prescient imagination. They have gone now. Long forgotten. The planet spins on. Better for their passing.

In the meantime, people are slowly waking up. Monsanto was met with stiff resistance in the UK and the EU around 20 years ago. People didn’t see the need for genetically modified foods. There was outcry that US food labelling laws meant that soy beans from there might contain  some proportion of GMO content and not declared. It could therefore slip past EU labelling rules. Soy beans and soy extract were in everything. Same with GM canola oil. It was a huge issue.

And then we emigrated to Canada… and food labelling of any kind was rare. Sell by date? Best before date? Why would you need that? Over the years it’s got better and better. And then today, we visited the US and I was delighted to see that there was very prominent shelf labelling for non-GMO products. A real ground swell seems to be starting . It’s taken a while, but it’s arrived.

GMO? Not on my shelf!

GMO? Not on my shelf!

For further reading, check out the Non-GMO Project.

Non-GMO Project

Oh Canada… you ARE silly.

24 01 2015

So I live in Surrey, BC.

It’s just an address, but hereabouts people like to be more specific and say SOUTH Surrey to differentiate it from NORMAL Surrey. The reputation of drugs and associated crime being a little too ungenteel for some. Compared to the UK, even deepest, darkest Newton (area of Surrey) is as safe as houses, but all things are relative and it is comparatively bad by BC standards. White Rock is a separate little city, just a few blocks big, carved out of the very south of South Surrey… and they therefore get the best bit of the beach. If they’d been born separately and merged together over the space of a millennium or so, White Rock and South Surrey would be called a conurbation. But this is North America and the paint is still drying on even the oldest “heritage homes”, so they’re not.

White Rock itself has changed quite dramatically in the 14 years we’ve lived here. Lots of development – some of it vertical (the city limit of 4 storeys – intended to protect the ocean views for all – seems to be negotiable if you are a developer with deep enough pockets… or an interesting photo collection, I suppose). When we first arrived, it was like Little England. Every other person was either an elderly war bride or a recent UK immigrant. Far from the case now, but that genteel aspiration lives on, and by and large White Rock/South Surrey is  a twee seaside town. I was frankly a little disappointed all those years ago. We’d emigrated to the other side of the world and accidentally arrived back in England. The largest difference was realising that we’d also travelled back in time to the late 70s! BC has a disproportionately powerful union culture, but it’s also very polite and friendly.

Recently though there have been a couple of troublesome events. Not least the attempted abduction of a 9 year old girl from the local school playground (not during school session, but even so…).

The latest though? A bank robbery. Yup – a real life bank robbery. At the HSBC (though I currently have little sympathy for that particular brand). Best part though? The disguise was a ludicrously obvious false beard. Did I mention that this occurred about 4 blocks from the RCMP police station? a 750m, 8 minute walk according to Google. Oh dear…

Bank robber with fake beard sought by RCMP in White Rock, B.C. – British Columbia – CBC News.

CBC: White Rock robbery

Google Map’s suggestion of the 8 minute walk the police might have taken…

Google Maps: 750 from bank to RCMP station.

Google Maps: 750m from bank to RCMP station.

EDIT: It seems the police now have some suspects.


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