Flashes of Inspiration

A new experience:  Spouse and I finished watching Spiderman for the umpteenth time earlier tonight.  I got up to let Popeye in the house;  more accurately, I got up to persuade Popeye to please vacate his now habitual spot in the garden just outside the back door and to come at least temporarily into the house.  I exhorted him to pee first – he got Spouse up four times last night – and he obliged me, but then cast a disparaging eye over his shoulder and promptly marched around the front of the house, presumably determined to recline once again, in a different garden and under a different bush.

Popper’s intransigence led me to enlist Spouse’s assistance in retrieving our wayward little friend.  She headed on to the front porch and the exclamations began immediately.  I was urged to join her.

In the front yard, there were many, many, many of these, doing what they do – flying around and periodically emitting little, but very bright, bursts of light.  In the moonless darkness of the lawn, with hundreds of the little critters zooming around the vast expanse of air and trees around us, it was like being in the middle of an all-insect Beatles press conference.   The flashes flitted and glittered like so many airborne diamonds, and the only sound was Spouse’s oohing and aahing at our own private light show.

I tried to take pictures – timed exposures with the DSLR, and even some video with the Sony HandyCam on “Nightshot Plus” mode, but I don’t think any of them turned out.  They certainly didn’t capture the moment.

The SFX were pretty good in Spiderman, but the stuff we saw in the movie was handily outdone by the natural light and magic of a few hundred fireflies.

No: Smoking! Then, No Smoking.

The Province of Ontario has a new law, as of May 31st, requiring variety stores (and most other tobacco retailers , except for designated “smoke shops”) to conceal all tobacco products on the premises. Cigarettes cannot be displayed openly on the familiar racks behind the counter; instead, most stores have adopted a system of shelves with flip up doors, as pictured here. This is the latest legislation in a recent line of laws designed to make it difficult to be a smoker in the Province of Ontario (smoking is banned entirely in public buildings and in bars, clubs and restaurants here in the land of the Trillium; there are also very substantial restrictions on tobacco advertising).

Now, before I get to the meat of my story, I need to make full disclosure: I used to smoke. Filthy habit, I know, especially for me – I have suffered from asthma and significant allergies since I was a child, with the attendant respiratory difficulties from time to time. While I was quitting I started getting terrible anxiety and had to see a behavioral counselor, learn more here.  It was stupid, but by way of explanation rather than excuse, suffice to say that a social affectation indulged in over the occasional beer became, thanks to the addictive properties of our little leafy carcinogenic friends, an all too regular practice. Over the space of a couple of years, with mounting stress at work, a social life (at the time) ever more centred around the local pub and the *ahem* occasional beer, that regular practice blossomed into a full-on vice. Not coincidentally, at around about the time Spouse and I started seeing one another socially, I resolved to kick the habit entirely. I feel compelled to set the record straight that my decision, though clearly influenced by her presence in my life, was just that – my decision; she did not “tell me” to quit, though she did encourage me and help me along once the decision had been made. Anyway, a few boxes of nicotine patches, a couple of dozen sweating, screaming rages and eight weeks later, I was restored to my natural state as a non-smoker.

My point is: yes, it’s a significant societal problem, and yes, this is (in my opinion) a proper area of activity in which the government needs to become involved as a regulator. I know whereof I speak, for I was a weak-willed person in the days of yore; the law that sent smokers outside of the bar to indulge was a significant factor in at least getting me started on the road to quitting.

Anyway, Spouse and I walked in to Richi’s – a little variety store just up the road from Juniorvania – to pick up a carton of milk on the way home from work today. While we were completing the transaction, I couldn’t take my eyes off the gleaming, brand-spankin’ new expanse of white shelved enormo-wall behind the cashier, and I got to thinking about the new tobacco law. Spouse and I were debating the merits of this legislation as we got in the car to drive home, and I stated the case in support of the bill: when immature eyes cannot see the evil tobacco products, they cannot be tempted to sample the forbidden fruit, saving them from possible addiction, illness and death.

Spouse doubted the efficacy of this approach, citing the taboo nature of the foul weed as part of the dangerous mystique that is so irresistible to the young, so convinced that they are immortal. Drawn to the risqué behaviour like moths to a flame, Spouse argued, kids will be even more convinced by the drawers of secrecy that smoking must – at all costs – be tried. Since any attempt to hide tobacco from kids entirely is doomed to failure, and since the efforts to conceal it create all the more incentive for kids to find it, Spouse argued, the policy was ill-conceived.

“If you ask me,” Spouse continued, “we would be better off to force all kids to smoke. Make ’em keep smoking ’til they get sick and can’t stand the sight of the things anymore – maybe just before gym class. Then we’d see who wants to take up smoking.”

I regret to advise those of you who may be like-minded that there are – at this time – no concrete plans for Spouse to stand for elected office on this unusual platform of universal and compulsory youth smoking. We are instead reviewing the policies of the various provincial political parties to see which of these organizations might best accomodate such views so that Spouse may cast her vote accordingly;  I will let you know what we find, so that you may join her.

Let me tell you about The Pond.

If a person were attempting to describe my day yesterday in monster-movie terms (and I’m guessing there’s more than one of you out there who does this regularly), it would have been called “Junior vs. The Pond: The Draininating of the Slime”.

Juniorvania is mostly a land-locked little paradise, having few riparian rights to speak of (in spite of a neighbouring stream/swamp on the southwestern border), no inland seas or lakes and no navigable (or un-navigable, for that matter) rivers. IMG_2478Thus, much of the Pride of the Nation, in relation to aqueous matters, is focussed upon The Pond. Being sufficiently unique within the Nation’s borders and furthermore being the object of such ubiquitous reverence and admiration among the Juniorvanian people, The Pond – unlike water bodies of lesser significance – needs no additional descriptive information in its name (cf. “Miller’s Pond” from Leave it to Beaver fame, “Great Slave Lake” or the “Pacific Ocean”). Rather, this formidable geographic feature is known simply and eponymously according to its hydrographical taxonomy.

You will understand that considerations of space do not here permit a comprehensive recitation of a complete history of The Pond. Nevertheless, any discussion concerning the events surrounding that reservoir would necessarily be inchoate without some mention of The Incident. Last weekend, my brother, his wife and their three kids dropped by for a visit to Juniorvania, their first since the weather warmed, the snows receded, and it became feasible for younger folk to explore the far-flung borders of The Nation. In the course of those explorations, my nephew Thomas was wandering about with a pair of camo binoculars for no reason intelligible to anyone over the age of 30 months. A proper (and appropriately scientific) recitation of the events that followed would not be in any way thorough without reference to both this document and this one (interested parties please pay particular attention to the bits about “algal bloom”, those are going to be important to the tale), but suffice to say that there were (at the time of The Incident) many living things of considerable interest to botanists and zoologists alike residing in The Pond. Sadly, there were also more than a few deceased specimens of some of these species.IMG_2485

Our intrepid but diminutive surveyor rambled around a corner with Mom following at a discreet distance (excessively close maternal supervision being notably detrimental to an explorer’s reputation for bravado among his fellow adventurers). According to recollections gleaned from Thomas following the event, it would appear that his perambulations on this day were of some heightened and immediate purpose, as the little explorer evidently felt an urgent need to relieve himself of the grime and grunge naturally accumulated over the course of the day. Say what you will about the little fellow’s standards regarding suitable cleansing facilities, but do not question his motivation, enthusiasm and dedication to rapid achievement of his purpose, for upon rounding the earlier described corner and espying The Pond, little Thomas abruptly bolted for the water’s edge as though he were shot from a cannon. It is unknown whether our little hero had hoped to bring himself to an equally abrupt halt upon reaching the margin where land met scunge prior to wading in more cautiously, or (in the alternative) if his sudden, forceful and complete immersion in the stinky morass represented a conscious and deliberate (if somewhat spectacularly injudicious) choice. Being related to the little tyke and therefore somewhat biased, I’d prefer to accord him the benefit of the doubt on this issue and to attribute to him the former, rather than latter, design. What can be said with some confidence is that if his plan was to approach – but not immediately enter – the water, it became instantly evident that there had been a serious error concerning the appropriate friction co-efficient to be applied in the “distance to full stop” portion of Thomas’ calculations. To be sure, the loose mulch, fallen leaves and assorted twigs at water’s edge would have presented a tricky surface to assess in terms of braking properties for most experts in such matters; for an excited two-year old bent upon a refreshing dip and racing incautiously towards a noxious cesspool, however, the challenges inherent in such an exercise were regrettably insurmountable and – as a result – the plan failed rather suddenly and catastrophically from the point of view of Thomas’ personal comfort.

Infectious African Diseases at the Mapleview Mall.

I made a quick trip to the mall today, hoping to get some spare parts for the People’s Lawn Improvement Tractor so that it might actually start up and become mobile, tractormanwhich is an excellent quality in a tractor of any kind. The People’s L.I.T. is a Craftsman, and I thought I might be able to find someone at the Sears to help me identify the necessary bits and help me place an order. That particular procurement mission failed – all I got out of the store visit was a 1-800 number and some gentle mocking from the girl at the catalogue sales counter concerning (in her apparent opinion) my somewhat advanced and possibly premature plans to begin mowing, seeing as we are only at May 3rd.

Having been denied – temporarily – the glory of fully functional heavy machinery, I headed for the bookstore to grab a magazine, intending to grab lunch in the food court before continuing on to my next Saturday errand. I selected a copy of Wired magazine, which (in case you haven’t noticed) has recently gotten a heck of a lot thinner and a heck of a lot more relevant; in my opinion, over the last few years it’s basically been a fashion magazine little different than Cosmopolitan or Vogue, but with high-tech devices in place of ridiculous dresses, and just as many lifestyle based advertisements. Anyway, they’re back to talking about things with lights that flash, that you plug into the wall, and that generally seem cool.

As I approached the counter with my magazine, the cashier (a post-secondary age youngish looking girl who had been stocking shelves behind the counter with some newly released paperback or other) spied me and headed for the till. Attempting to put down some sort of signage that she had been holding, she dropped it on the floor and there was a bit of a clatter as the sign and it’s metal support bracket fell to the floor. When she got to the till, I greeted her with my usual insouciant (and highly charming) “How’s it goin’?” A man of the people, I always feel the need to let the cashier know that I am a person who sees beyond the function they are performing; I see them for the person they are, and I am prepared to converse, should you so desire. That’s just how I roll.

“Not bad,” she replied, “except I have a bad case of the dropsies. It’s not just today, either, it’s like…always.

Not sure how to respond to this apparent cry for help with her manual dexterity, and entirely lacking any basis upon which to either contradict her self-deprecating assertion or (in the alternative) wholeheartedly confirm the scathing indictment of her complete lack of co-ordination, I felt that my conversational alternatives were somewhat restricted. With the pressure nevertheless on to come up with some sort of intelligent response, I confess to some disappointment that the best I could do was to utter a fairly general and non-committal response: “Yeah, well, y’know. It happens.” This was the equivalent of a “set” shot in volleyball; just trying to keep the ball/conversation going, so a team-mate can make a point.

“It’s why I work in a bookstore,” she continued, tapping my magazine on the counter as if to conclusively prove her point. “Paper. Doesn’t break.” Satisfied with her explanation, she began ringing in my purchase.

I felt I was on reasonably solid ground now, and felt that the cashier’s remark was like a “bump.” Back to me for the spike! In a flash, it came to me. “Yeah, good thing you don’t work in a medical research lab or something,” I said. “Otherwise, that might have been ebola virus all over the floor,” I joked, tilting my head in the direction of the fallen signage as a visual cue that I was referring to the dropped sign. I was pleased with myself; it wasn’t exactly Mort Sahl, but I was convinced that my lightning quick decision to use the word “ebola” was certain to amuse and entertain, because that’s just a funny word.

She stopped mashing the keys on the cash register and looked at me doubtfully; I think she was sizing up whether I was the sort of fellow who might have just said something terribly rude about her. “What’s ebola?” she said.

Thus did I find myself attempting to convey the sum total of my (admittedly rudimentary) knowledge concerning certain hemorrhagic fevers emanating from Zaire to an unamused and very suspicious cashier in the middle of Coles bookstore in Burlington this morning at around a quarter to twelve. If you were in line behind me, I apologize for the delay. Next time, I’ll just grunt incomprehensibly and take my change, thank you very much.

Brought down by the devil’s horns. And a bunch of car nerds.

I love it when virtual communities act like real communities and come together to achieve a common purpose.  The special joy I have from this phenomenon is enhanced when the virtual community uses the everyday technology tools at their disposal to achieve their ends.  For that very reason, I spent some time a couple of years ago scambaiting;  it was fun using teh Intarwebs to interfere with fraudsters, and I’d like to take the practice up again some time.  I kept a diary for a short while about my scambaiting adventures;  sadly, I kept getting some momentum going in a scambait and then running into work-related madness that kept me away from my victims.  It was a fun little pastime, and there were a couple of bad guys who ended up getting arrested as a result of the work my fellow scambaiters did at www.419eater.com.

Here’s another great example of the kind of thing I’m talking about, though:  in Calgary, an online car enthusiasts’ community has located a vehicle stolen from one of its members.   As reported in Wired, the thief in question swiped a rather distinctive Nissan Skyline GT-R – the vehicle in question is a right-hand drive model imported from Japan.  The owner of the vehicle thought the car was gone, but posted a description of the unique vehicle in the car-buff forum he frequented, along with a description of the (also) distinctive looking thief, who was missing the middle two fingers on his left hand.

Sure enough, a moderator from the forum by the name of James Lynch spotted the car a day later and then did some awesome detective work:

“I pulled out my camera, but I wanted to see his hand, so I did the rock out sign,” Lynch, 22, told Wired.com, referring to the splayed finger gesture that’s ubiquitous at heavy metal concerts. “He did it back and I saw his hand. I rolled down my window and yelled, ‘Nice stolen car!’ He’s like, ‘It’s not stolen,’ ”

The suspect sped off in the turbocharged 400-horsepower car at more than 100 mph, almost running off the road in the process. “He’s a lousy driver,” said Lynch, who decided chasing him wouldn’t be wise. Instead, he called the police and posted the suspect’s picture at Beyond.ca.

Two days later, using tools like Facebook and Google maps, along with some old-fashioned gumshoe work, the community had found the car and local police soon arrested their man.  Bonus:  there’s video of the thief (dubbed “The Claw” by forum habituees) posted on youtube.

Just laugh at me and I’ll buy your underwear

Spouse and I made a quick – well it was supposed to be quick – trip to the mall this afternoon; her wedding band and engagement ring have been suffering mightily, we believe from the riding Spouse does, and our mission was to deliver the subject jewellery for repair. The staff at the store had a good deal of uncertainty as to how to fill out the appropriate forms, which resulted in a much longer visit to the jewellery store than we had wanted or needed (I am trying to get some work done for tomorrow, and didn’t need an extended sojourn in some crappy mall jewellery store). Complicating the transaction was the head jewellery store lady’s involvement with two folks who came into the store before our business could be completed; it seemed to me that the woman was trying to buy a watch for the fellow I assumed to be her husband. Lucky hubby was a VERY picky fellow, though, and needed to be shown approximately 678 different watches, and moreover needed the competing and contrasting features of each timepiece explained to him in minute detail. His indecision and the consequent delay of our transaction, I have to admit, was getting me a little cranky. We left grumbling a bit about the sixty bucks the repairs were likely to cost us. We resolved never to return to that jeweller after these repairs have been completed.

Then we went downstairs for a food court lunch, though, and burger seemed to brighten my mood somewhat, as prophesied by Mike. We popped into Gymboree to get some fun clothes for a friend’s soon-to-be-arriving baby. The sign outside the store said, “Baby Sale $10” and Spouse told the clerk we would like to purchase a child. The clerk laughed and (probably) lied to us when we asked her how many times she had heard that joke before. A little while later, I pointed to a nearby display of submarine and octopus emblazoned underwear and inquired whether they were available in a Men’s 40.

The clerk laughed again and we walked out of there quite pleased to have purchased six and a half square centimetres of fabric for sixty-five bucks plus tax.

See what customer service can do for you, retailers of North America?

This just in…

Casa de Junior?It would appear that the long and arduous search for a homeland for our people has come to a conclusion; a tentatively successful conclusion, subject to some conditions that will be satisfied over the next week or so, and one contingency over which we can exert no influence, but a conclusion nonetheless. For the moment, however, it would appear that the Great Migration is about to commence. Spouse and I are, you know, completely terrified excited about that.

Also, we apparently got a nifty riding mower thrown into the bargain, so I’m pretty stoked. I may decide to refer to it as a “tractor”, y’know, just ’cause it’s more evocative of a noble peasantry, the kind of thing celebrated in Stalinist artwork; that’s me, cutting the lawn.

Because I have so much free time.

Can you believe this made it to the tree?I must be the King of Beginning Projects. I have decided to pick up a new hobby over the last few weeks. I was trying to take a picture of our Christmas tree (for posterity – no doubt the Smithsonian will be calling within a week or two) three or four days before Christmas, which led me to fooling about with Spouse’s point and shoot digital camera. It’s a relatively fancy point and shoot, so far as those things go, and it has a “manual” mode where you can set the aperture and exposure time. I had the camera on a tripod to make a timed exposure of the tree using only natural light. A couple of my attempts turned out to be not half bad, which was just enough encouragement to convince me that I should get myself a digital SLR and learn how to take a decent picture.

The purchase was not entirely impulsive; Spouse and I have been debating whether to take the plunge for several months. I had even (somewhat unusually for me) done some research into what specific camera I would purchase. The winner: a Canon Digital Rebel XTi – otherwise known as an EOS 40D in some countries. Much of the twenty-four hours has been consumed by my attempts to learn how to operate the gizmo. Aside from the picture above, here are some of the results of that learning process:

  • got mocked by Spouse for taking a still life – very artistic, black and white you understand – of her slipper;
  • a very puzzled cat and a dog with mild flash-blindness; and
  • three and a half hours of waiting in a freezing parking lot, after I managed to deposit the car keys in the trunk of the (locked) car while hiding my precious new toy during a quick trip to Chapters to obtain some “how-to” literature on digital photography.
  • On this last item, I first called for assistance from the pirates you know as “tow-truck drivers” at 1:10 p.m. I was told by the pleasant and helpful dispatch operator that someone would arrive to help us in “about 45 minutes.” An hour passed, approximately fifty minutes of which I had spent standing next to my stranded vehicle in the windswept and icy parking lot, enduring the quizzical and sometimes derisive looks of my fellow citizens as well as the astonishingly brisk Canadian cold. I called the towing company and spoke to the very same cheery dispatcher. She assured me that the driver would be along in “about fifteen minutes.” My testicles were beginning to feel like they were just about ready to ice down a couple of margaritas, so I popped inside a nearby Starbucks to enjoy 16 oz. of tea for the low, low price of about four dollars. I knocked back the four dollar tea in about six minutes and headed back out to stand sentry over my car. Another hour passed. Twice I called the dispatch number; by this time, they were clever enough to be ducking my calls and no human would pick up the phone. At 4:00, a full two hours and fifty minutes after my initial contact, the tow truck arrived.

    I am still trying to warm up and calm down.

    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

    Mad Christmas Photo Skillz on Display
    I was reminded of the passing of time the other day in an unusual way. I was in the local Canadian Tire store (kind of a giant combination hardware-automotive-gardening store, for those of you south of the border) on Saturday; in addition to doing some last minute Christmas shopping, I was getting some very specific holiday supplies. My mission was to build a device that could make watering the tree a little easier: the design called for a funnel with a length of clear plastic hose attached to it; the device would be painted green (for camouflage purposes) and then fastened (hopefully invisibly) to the trunk of the tree with the hose extending downwards into the tree stand.

    Getting the funnel was no problem, but finding the length of clear plastic hose was proving more difficult. I asked the guy working at the auto parts counter if he might know where to find tubing of the correct size, and I held up the funnel to show him the end I wanted to attach it to. The guy working at the counter was in his mid twenties, and as soon as I held up the funnel, his face broke into a broad grin and he begin nodding vigorously. “Right on,” he said and disappeared into the stock room behind the counter. For a moment or two, I wondered why he seemed to immediately understand my purpose and why he was so stoked about it.

    Then I thought about it – I had shown a funnel to a twenty-five year old and asked for a length of hose to fit on the end of it. He is of course young enough to assume that I was going to fill the contraption with beer and drink from it. When he returned from the stock room empty-handed, he looked a little vexed; he apologetically told me that he had been unable to find any tubing of the necessary diameter and suggested that I check in the hardware section (far corner) to see if there was any there. I briefly considered telling him about the true purpose behind my funnel/tubing gizmo; instead, I thanked him for his help and wandered off towards hardware with my street cred intact.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!

    Categorized as Incidents

    On Conferring.

    As advertised on TV, I was away from the ol’ homestead for a few days earlier this week while – cue the high pitched scream offstage – at a conference for work.    There were a series of odd little incidents and observations that I’m pretty sure Larry David could quickly turn into a half-decent episode of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm.   Since the hotel room in which I was staying did not have operational high-speed Internet access, I have been virtually bursting at the seams to share them all week long.

    When I arrived at the hotel, I noticed that it was apparently still being constructed, or allegedly improved or something.  This was not difficult to notice because there were all kinds of gigantic bulldozers, erratically placed orange fences and massive piles of dirt sitting next to giant holes (correlation?  hmmm…).  The first significant consequence of this construction was that the hotel had “valet parking only”.  This means that the hotel does not have enough on-site spaces in which to place all of its guests’ vehicles;  accordingly, your friendly innkeeper is prepared to offer you the “option” of  paying a complete stranger $11.95 for the privilege of having him go hide your car somewhere in the surrounding neighbourhood.  I was helpfully informed of this attractive service by a sign near the front entrance of the hotel.  I had plenty of time to read the sign, because there was a ten-minute lineup in the parking lot to simply get near the area where you could actually talk to one of the valets.   When my time in parking limbo was expired and I approached one of the exalted valets, I rolled down my window and asked him what I should do;  he pointed to a spot of open concrete about fifteen feet away and just on the other side of a barrier (which he moved) and said, “Park it here.”  I did, gave him my keys – and paid the hotel $11.95.