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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Another June Ends

This was possibly our most expensive June ever, between the siding, pool liner, pool cover, pool heater repair, and air conditioning trauma (although, fortunately, we've delayed the big expense on that latter item for a few months, it seems). It'd be really nice if we didn't have anything else go wrong for at least the next six months!

The weather was also kind of weird over the past month: lots of rain in the forecast, but not all that much actual precipitation, and crazy "mood swings" between heat waves and downright chilly periods. I think I've gotten fewer June swims in than I've come to expect from past years, but maybe July and August will make up for it.

Vicki and I are both engaged in varying types of "work talk" right now, although - as always - any or all of it may come to naught. I'm down to 4 hours of Math tutoring per week for the summer (unless things change, which they always seem to do), which is the lightest schedule I've had in awhile. As a result, I hope to get a lot of reading done, which would be good since my pile of unread books has once again grown rather large. There's something about sitting by the pool with a good book on a summer day that's kind of hard to beat.

Anyway, enough about June... bring on July!!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Out With The Old, In With The New (Again)

Nothing says "New start" for a superhero quite like getting a makeover.

We've seen "Electric Bluperman" (electric blue Superman), Spidey in his black spandex (later revealed to be Venom), and watched Iron Man go through versions of armour faster than most of us blow out running shoes... and now it's Wonder Woman's turn, courtesy of superstar artist Jim Lee.

Her bold new look is shown to the left, and an explanation is given for it here. The comments there make for some interesting reading, especially when you consider that it's the official DC blog that they're appearing on! I kind of like her classic costume, but I'm also not averse to seeing Princess Diana change her look from time to time. This won't be the first time she's shed the star-spangled panties, but we'll see if this one lasts longer than the "Emma Peel" look she adopted in the late 60s. I'm mostly jazzed at the thought of J Michael Straczynski taking over as writer on Wonder Woman, as that title's needed a shot in the arm for years now.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Excellent Agile Topics Now Being Debated

For those former co-workers of mine who find themselves with a bit of extra time on their hands - either while waiting for their new job to start, or as they continue the job search - I implore you to visit the blog of an old friend of ours. He's been tackling a few topics of interest to the Agile community, such as does Agile favour generalization at the expense of specialization, can Agile only succeed with superstar coders and is Agile doomed to fail because of "the evils of management".

Considering that virtually everyone who used to work with me at my last job has experienced Agile in one form or another, I'd say this series of posts is pretty much required reading and also deserving of some feedback from those who've been through it.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

It's Like Dying, Over And Over Again

I've been replaying the single player campaign of Killzone 2 recently, albeit on a higher difficulty this time. I'm finding that there are parts of the game that I barely remember, probably because I blitzed right through them the first time. Not so much on this pass, thanks to the increased challenge at this setting.

I'd say that each level sees me die at least half a dozen times before I can successfully push through it (and sometimes a lot more than that). An unexpected side effect of this is that I'm having to try out a lot more different playing styles than I've ever had to do before. I was tempted at first to just give up and dial down the difficulty, but I resisted that urge and I'm now far enough into the campaign that I think I might actually be able to complete it. However it's probably the toughest challenge of its type that I've ever taken on.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

And Now: The Totally Last Totally Lost

More than a month after the series finale aired, we're treated to the (8-part!) final installment of Totally Lost from Jensen and Snierson. And it's totally worth the wait!

Friday, June 25, 2010

The African Queen, Part 1

Our daughter Tammy has set a goal for herself that most of us would find intimidating, if not downright inconceivable: she wants to have visited all seven continents before she turns 26.

Like the rest of us, her first one was a freebie: she was born in North America.

The spring when she was 17 years old, the three of us went to Europe and saw England, Ireland and France together. That was Tammy's first foray outside of North America, and it may have been what first got her thinking along these lines. She returned to Europe several years later, once university was finished, and cut a much wider and deeper swath across the continent. She traveled with a couple of girlfriends for most of it, but also spent some time by herself which probably solidified the wanderlust more than anything else.

Last year, she used a whole lot of "time in lieu" that she'd built up at work to see Asia for the first time. She was over there for most of two months and absolutely loved it. I think she'd started planning that particular journey while watching Lost in Translation the first time.

Right now, Tammy is almost halfway through her African voyage. She's traveling with a tour group (thank goodness!) and she assures us that they're sticking to "safe" areas only. This trip puts her over the hump in terms of seeing each continent, as she only has Oceania (Australia/New Zealand/etc), South America and Antarctica left. She already has plans in mind on how to get to each of those in the next 2.5 years, as that's how long she has left before her 26th birthday arrives in December of 2012 (just in time for the end of the world, according to the Mayan calendar).

Anyway, since Tammy is sending us such lovely updates on her current vacation via e-mail, I thought I might share some of them here (with her permission, of course). She hasn't passed along any photos yet, but once I have some, I'll post them, too. These are just snippets of longer e-mails, but they should provide a taste of what she's been up to.

"Day 4 - early morning canoe trip along the Orange River. Including rapids! I've never canoed through rapids before (or white water rafted or anything like that), so that was an easy introduction to it I think. By the way, apparently compared to the rest of the world ALL Canadians are expert canoers. I was by far the best at it, and I suck. Drove the rest of the day until we got to Fish River Canyon, where we watched the sunset. That is the second biggest canyon in the world (after the Grand Canyon, of course).

"Day 5 - today was just a long driving day through Namibia. Amazing scenery changes from brown mountains to golden wheat fields to red sand dunes. Also some wildlife: mountain zebras, spring bok, warthogs, orxy, etc. We aren't in Big 5 country yet so no lions, elephants, etc... I think that will be Day 12 when we visit Etosha.

"Day 6 - Desert day! We got up at 4am and scrambled to the top of Dune 45 to see the sunrise. Google "Sossusvlei" and you'll see what I saw. I made it to the top of the dune first and let me tell you that was quite the morning exercise. It was about 200m up, straight up it seemed! Then we took a jeep into the middle of the desert (near where some scenes in that movie 'The Cell' was filmed) and had a guided walk with a local who showed us the desert wildlife and told us how they survive in the desert and stuff like that - very interesting. Last night we camped on a big rock in the middle of the desert with not so much as a toilet or another person in sight.

"Our campsites have been so different each night which is nice, though I kind of prefer the ones with showers and other people around. At our site in Fish River Canyon I had a little encounter with a jackal on the way to the toilet in the middle of the night. I just yelled at it and it ran away in one direction and I ran in the other. Jackals are just like little (vicious) dogs, so not that scary - hyenas are worse, but we haven't encountered those just yet (but apparently we will - I've heard LOTS of stories of people accidentally cuddling up with them in the middle of the night because the hyenas will lie right next to our tents to keep warm).

"Mmmm let's see - guess I left off my reports in Swakopmund, which I loved. Would live there. Went skydiving and survived, and went sand boarding on some of the dunes on the outskirts of town. It was wet that morning, so the boarding was difficult but we also went down on mats and I think clocked in at about 70 km/hr.

"We spent the next couple of nights in the bush with the San Bushmen, a traditional African tribe. Oh and two days in Etosha - which was amazing. We saw too many elephants, zebra, and giraffe to count, as well as 5 lions. We ALMOST saw a kill (that's the official terminology for when a lion catches and kills its dinner) - a female lion was stalking a zebra for about 20 minutes, but then a silly spring bok spotted the lion and alerted the zebra. When the lion realized that the zebra had seen her, she just stood up non-chantlantly, yawned, and walked back to the rest of her pride."

... more to come.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Heatwave Over? Then It Must Be Time For The A/C To Work Again!

Yes, just as our latest heatwave left town, we managed to get our central air fixed (after several scorchers). In the process, we found that the cooling unit that we had figured was about 20 years old (12 years with us) is actually a very well-preserved 30 years of age!

Later this year we plan to replace Old Faithful, figuring that it probably doesn't owe us (or anyone) a thing by this point. And if it can make it through to September, say, then we may actually have saved up enough cash to pay for its successor. Right now, however, the "house account" cupboard is looking pretty bare.

Now if we could just get the pool heater fixed - again - perhaps life could resume its beautiful arc.

A Tournament In One Match

For those who didn't hear, we just had the longest tennis match in history at Wimbledon. John Isner and Nicolas Mahut required a fifth set to decide their first round match, and fifth sets don't use the tie-breaker format to decide a winner (unlike the earlier sets in a best-of-5 match). In other words, once the fifth set reached 6-6, the players didn't transition to the single-point-per-serve tie-breaker format that's designed to decide the set more quickly than having to win by two games. Instead, they continued to play full games until one player achieved a two game advantage over the other player.

Incredibly, neither player could win two games in a row from that point on until the score got to 70-68! That's right: they'd played 45 games through the first 4 sets, and then combined for a mind-blowing 138 games in that final set! The match lasted 11 hours, spread out over 3 different days. Isner eventually prevailed, but the jury's out as to whether he'll have anything left for whoever he's matched up against in the second round. After all, he's played nearly an entire tournament's worth of games already!

The Big Send-Off

Yesterday afternoon featured the big party for my old workplace, as they took over the outdoor patio of a downtown restaurant after lunch and well into the evening. I was invited to drop by, and so I spent a couple hours renewing old acquaintances and hearing what everyone is up to next. My arrival there, perhaps inspired by the beautiful Hawaiian shirt I had on, was greeted by probably the loudest welcome I've ever gotten anywhere! (And it included at least one vuvuzela horn blast, for those who've been following the FIFA World Cup on TV.)

From what I can tell, approximately half the people who will be put out of work by end of day tomorrow have already landed their next gig. For them, the severance money they're about to receive will be a bonus that they can do whatever they like with (my advice: RSP or paying down a mortgage... that sort of thinking is why Vicki and I are enjoying the life we are right now, after all). It's not at all surprising that so many landed on their feet so quickly, considering the work that the office's HR manager did to bring companies in for open houses as well as the level of talent present within those walls. For the rest, of course, those funds will tide them over as they continue to look for employment, which hopefully won't take until the money runs out. Here's hoping they fare as well over the course of the next several months as the first group has already.

Among the other topics being discussed yesterday was the popular question of, "Why did the office get shut down?" A variety of possibilities have been floated, ranging from conspiratorial ("They had it in for us!") to pragmatic ("We became too expensive once the Canadian dollar got to par with the U.S. dollar.") to resigned ("I guess we just didn't do a good enough job."). I don't know what the right answer is, and probably never will. But my theory, formed at the time I resigned - when the writing seemed to be on the wall that things were headed downhill - goes like this:

I think we simply didn't "play the game" well enough. What I mean is that we weren't very good at managing the relationship with our American ownership, and that hurt us in all kinds of ways. We didn't set expectations appropriately, and we weren't good at communicating the costs associated with ownership's inability to know what they really wanted from us. One of our development "partners" in this strange relationship, who more often than not were competitors rather than compatriots, ran circles around us when it came to playing the game. They knew how to provide large estimates on things they didn't want to do, how to shift blame from themselves (often onto us) whenever they failed to hold up their own end of the bargain, and they had the bosses' ears (due to both proximity and deftness at politics) in ways that we couldn't hope to match. Our leadership was really never up to that sort of a challenge, and it showed.

For all of those reasons, it was likely never going to work out. On the other hand, lots of us gained valuable experience, as well as collecting a fair-sized paycheque for a number of years. So all things considered, I think it turned out OK.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

DC Goes Digital

This is big news for those who follow comics or do most of their reading on screens (or both): DC Comics is launching its product into the digital market. This was inevitable, of course, based both on the fact that Disney Comics (publisher of X-Men, Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, etc) had already done so, and as a result of Jim Lee's promotion several months ago to Co-Publisher with digital comics under his purview.

But what makes this noteworthy, perhaps, are two things: the fact that DC is promising royalty payments to creators (something which, if memory serves, Marvel/Disney has not come through on yet), and the establishment of a fund for promoting/supporting brick-and-mortar comic stores from a portion of the digital proceeds (an acknowledgment of the importance those outlets play in the industry). Those are both very big deals, at least in principle. We'll have to see how it actually plays out, but at least they're starting off on a good footing.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Great Game Getting Greater?

Despite an abundance of typos, I still enjoyed this sneak peek at Portal 2, the 2011 followup to the surprise hit included in Valve's awesome, 5-game Orange Box released in 2007. Even that brief a glimpse tells me that Valve did not rest on their laurels (of which there were many for Portal) but instead upped the ante with the sequel. I love the introduction of the types of gels, for example, as those suggest ever-increasingly challenging puzzles to solve, bringing yet another set of physical forces into the equation.

I think we'll definitely have to replay the original game sometime shortly before the sequel shows up next year, if for no other reason than to re-acquaint ourselves with all of the tricks that had to be learned in order to get through it! Anyone with a console or Mac/PC who hasn't checked out The Orange Box should certainly consider doing so next time they're looking for a great value and some excellent entertainment.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

This Is Starting To Get Depressing

So the original plan for this year was to spend the $10K or so of "home improvement" money that we'd saved up for that purpose (as part of our regular budgeting). We wanted to replace the existing siding, since it was all but falling off the house in places, cover a few more wooden areas with vinyl (as we've been slowly doing over the past decade) and upgrade 4 or 5 windows that significantly predate our purchase of the house in 1998. We figured that we had just about enough money in the bank to cover all of that.

Then we opened the pool and discovered that the liner had pulled away from the coping over the winter. We also reached the end of our rope for dealing with the old style of winter cover for the pool, and decided to not only replace the liner but also get the new style of cover that's easier to take off in the spring. That was about $5K of expense that we hadn't counted on for 2010, but we couldn't really use the pool without dealing with the liner, and so it didn't make any sense to procrastinate any further where the pool was concerned. We couldn't abort our siding plans by that point as materials had already been ordered.

The siding, meanwhile, ended up being about $1K more than we'd expected, thanks to adding a few little upgrades here and there. With all of the expenses mounting, we re-directed a few thousand from other discretionary places so as to bulk up our "house" money for what was beginning to look like a big bill. We decided to put off replacing the windows so as not to go into the hole in terms of our available renovation money. We paid all of the pool costs earlier in the month, and then Vicki wrote the cheque for the siding on Friday. It looked like we might just about be able to pull this off.

Until we discovered yesterday (while we had guests over) that the central air wasn't working anymore. This unit was far from new when we bought the house, so we've known it was going to die at some point... but did it really have to give up the ghost right now? We figure it doesn't make much sense to try to fix a machine that old (probably 20+ years now) so on Monday Vicki will call around to see how quickly we can get a 21st century version installed. And in the meantime, it's going to be lots of warm nights like the one I barely got any sleep during last night. We figure this will be about another $4K to $5K, putting us close to $20K for the year... the year which we're not even halfway through yet!

I have to admit to being more than a little depressed about this right now. With neither of us working (other than my tutoring), it's beginning to feel like we may not have allocated enough money for us to really live on. And that, if true, would be a huge downer.

Or, to put it another way: if you've been thinking about buying a copy of No Kid of Ours is Failing at Math (How Parents Can Help) but haven't gotten around to it yet... now would be an excellent time!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

So Much To Love About This Story

Via Tweeter, I got to read this charming tale about a 12-year-old boy and the trouble he unintentionally caused the FBI, in the 1940s.

Things I enjoyed in this story:
  • the idea of 2 young boys enjoying code-breaking enough to read a book on it and devise their own code
  • the FBI complaining to the mother about how much their investigation of her pre-teen son cost the government
  • the "I actually didn't wear clothes much" line (I'd live in my swimsuit if I could!)
  • the way the child understood the value of $8 at the time ("40 round trips to the beach by streetcar, or 80 admission fees to the movies")
  • the lesson learned about what not to put on a security clearance application
Really good story!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Film Appreciation Night

I bought Fight Club on DVD several months ago, and have been looking for an opportunity to watch it ever since. I first saw the Ed Norton/Brad Pitt movie quite a few years ago (maybe around 2001?), lent to me (on DVD) by Hinckley, who assured me that it was more than just a film about guys knocking the crap out of each other. Tammy and I watched it on a weekend when Vicki was visiting her mother, and both really liked it. When Vicki returned, we recommended it to her and in fact viewed it a second time that weekend, along with her. She was rather unimpressed by it (to put it mildly), and ever since has been pretty negative about it.

So this time around, early in the proceedings I paused it and asked her if she remembered what the big twist was in the story. She said that she didn't, and she also didn't seem to be enjoying it very much (once again). So I made a tactical decision: I reminded her of what was really going on and we talked about what the film was really about (not just guys knocking the crap out of each other). Then we resumed it, and from that point on she got into it and could see all of the extra layers to the story. I think that, by the time it was over, she'd developed a lot of respect for Fight Club. (But only time will tell on that front.)

So I guess it's true: sometimes you really do have to break the rules in order to have any success!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Detailing The History Of Our Species

I love articles like this one in which a discovery is described which may ultimately mean that another early branch of our family tree has been revealed by Science. I know that probably won't quicken the pulse of many visitors to this blog, but it sort of does mine. Or rather, it feeds deliciously into my growing belief that we're day-by-day uncovering the history of this amazing planet of ours. That's something that, for the first 99% of the time that we've been around as a species, has been almost exclusively the province of superstition (which is to say, imagination), rather than fact. The tools that we've got at our disposal now, such as DNA sequencing, have blown the lid off of questions like, "Where did we come from?" and "Who are we?"

I think of the millions of years of darkness that preceded our current situation and the fact that we're now so capable of shining light on all of those mysteries, and I get quite a thrill.

The Power Of A Good Review

I hadn't really even heard of Neil Young's album, Greendale (that I can remember, anyway), let alone the recent graphic novel based on it (Neil Young's Greendale). Until I read this review, that is. But that was enough to convince me to give the book a look, which I did today at the comic store. Fortunately, the store had an unwrapped copy on display to allow me to flip through, as it officially comes enclosed in clear plastic... no dummy, that comic store guy! A quick perusal was enough to prompt me to pick it up, and my very own shrink-wrapped copy is now awaiting my attention along with the 3 regular comics that I bought today.

I should say that the linked-to review isn't even all that amazing, compared to, say, something you might encounter in the New Yorker or Rolling Stone. But it told me just enough to pique my interest, not the least of which because it was written by a Neil Young fan (as I'd sometimes count myself, though to a minor degree). I like the clear style of the artist on the book (Cliff Chiang), and so a light week of new comics became the perfect opportunity to indulge in an impulse purchase. And all because of one little review.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Sounds Of Silence

Today was the first weekday in more than three weeks during which there was good weather to be enjoyed and no sound of workmen around our house! The siding project from Hell was officially finished yesterday, with the minor caveat of affixing the new (decorative) shutters that Vicki ordered many weeks ago. Apparently the shutters weren't ready when the rest of the work was completed (despite being picked out weeks earlier) and so we'll be getting them late this week... or sometime later. Regardless, it was great to sit on the back deck today and just enjoy the normal sounds once again. I guess that means summer has now begun!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Getting Ready To Make The Switch

This time of year now has a new meaning for me: it's the period when kids in elementary and secondary school finish off another installment of "book learnin'" and prepare for a summer of escapism. For my high school students, that usually means cramming for Math final exams, whereas their junior counterparts have typically had their last test of the year already and thus have put things firmly into cruise control.

What comes next, for me, are summer engagements for Math tutoring. I have four lined up so far, with more possibly to come. It can be a challenge working with kids in the summer, though, because they're out of learning mode and into play mode, making for some tough slogging if you want to teach them something. What I like about it, though, is that the grind of getting them through "the current unit" is gone, freeing me up to focus on things like foundational understanding, general problem solving techniques, work habits, reasonableness-checking and other things that I write about in No Kid of Ours is Failing at Math (How Parents Can Help). Parents often fixate too much on marks for my liking (easy for me to say when I'm not the one receiving the report cards, of course!); the summer is my chance to cut loose and really get the kids thinking about the less obvious topics that usually end up helping them across units in Math.

My favourite students are the ones who bring their "A" game to the sessions even in the summer... especially since I realize that that's asking a lot of a kid at that time of year!

Something For Everyone?

Microsoft and Sony have both now had their big day in the sun at E3 2010, and I'm still trying to digest it all. The House Gates Built seemed to be all about re-branding its motion sensing "Project Natal" by its new (awful, in my opinion) name, "Kinect". The biggest reason I dislike this name is that it all but guarantees that we'll end up with a generation of kids who think that "connect" is spelled that way. Don't we have enough illiteracy already without this nudge in that direction? As others have pointed out, it also seems too close to "kinetic" (probably by choice), both in spelling and how it sounds, which is sure to cause confusion. Oh, and the usual Halo-heads were no doubt all a-quiver at the Halo: Reach sneak peeks provided. Yawn, I say.

Boneman and I were desperately hoping that Sony would use E3 as the forum for announcing the long-awaited Resistance 3, but no such luck. Killzone 3 (Feb 2011) had already been "leaked" prior to the start of E3, but some of the highlights shown there were quite impressive. Same goes for the new Medal of Honor (essentially a reboot of the franchise, I guess), which my previous post showed. Perhaps most exciting for Vicki and I was the confirmation that Portal 2 is in fact on its way (sometime next year), and that it'll be available on the PS/3 (yay!). Sure, if it was just 360-bound, I'd buy it for that console, but I'd much rather get it for the Sony machine. I use my PS/3 way more than my XBox these days and would prefer to get most games for it.

PlayStation fans had worried that our free PlayStation Network was going away, to be replaced by a subscription-based, XBox Live-like service. Sony provided good news on that front, introducing the brand new fee-based PSN+, but leaving the original, free PSN as a perfectly viable option. For those interested, here's a list of what PSN+ offers. I have to say that the one PSN+ feature that might make me consider it is the "full game trial" in which you get to download a complete game and play any part of it you want for one hour. That's a pretty intriguing way to test drive a game, preferable in many ways to the demos that we've all gotten used to. I don't know that an hour's long enough, but being able to play any mode of the game is a huge advantage over most demos. I haven't stumbled across the one-year subscription amount yet, but I imagine it'll be comparable to Microsoft's $60 price tag. For $60, would I enjoy having the "full game trial" option as well as access to the odd free game and some early betas for a year? Maybe, maybe not; but it's intriguing to consider.

Sony also did a lot of showing off of their Wii-like, Kinect-like, "Move" peripheral (coming Sep 19/10). I will freely admit that I haven't paid as much attention to either Project Natal/Kinect or Move as I should have, and I'll try to fix that over the next little while. Last August, I posted a few thoughts on how shooters might change based on motion-sensing equipment entering the equation. I don't know if they'll really be the game changers that their promoters are claiming, but it's possible. Right now, if I had to guess, I'd say that I'll end up getting both of them (since I own both of the consoles) but I can't for the life of me see any compelling reason why just yet!

Somewhat ironically, Sony also revealed that there will soon be a SurroundSound system available for the PS/3. Could this finally be the way that I get a good sound system into my living room? That would be strange, but it could happen.

It's been a crazy few days watching the news out of E3, but it's also been a lot of fun. And it's not even over yet! "Christmas for Gamers" indeed!

[Update Jun 16/10: Nice writeup comparing the Wii, Kinect and Move here.]

This Looks Like Fun

New Medal of Honor game:

Monday, June 14, 2010

16 Years Ago Tonight

It's always tougher to celebrate the anniversary of the Rangers winning the Cup on this date in 1994 when the modern day equivalent has missed the most recent playoffs - as happened this year - but maybe, in a twisted sort of way, that just makes the significance of that bygone day all the greater.

I also think that, had you told me 16 years ago that I'd still be marking the anniversary of that victory every year since, I'd have taken some satisfaction from it. While it's nice to dream of what it would be like to have so many championships that I can't remember the details of each anymore (hello, Red Wings fans?), at times I prefer the specialness that comes from having just one... one perfect, President's Trophy-combining championship that had a whole nation watching it. Not bad at all, that.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Spring Cleaning Time

A few weeks ago, Vicki and I resumed playing Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time, which had gotten abandoned when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 online gaming began dominating our PS/3 and my life. When my head finally came up from that experience, I was pretty burned out on gaming and it's taken awhile before I got back in the mood.

Insomniac Games did a fairly good job on this latest Ratchet & Clank offering, I'd say. The weapons were fun, as usual for R&C, although perhaps a little overpowered for some of the enemy AI that you face (the Buzz Blades and Spikes, in particular, often allowed Vicki to decimate an angry horde without even breaking a sweat). I found some of the environmental designs repetitive, as I swear I spotted the exact same layout on more than one planet... but it was still fun to level up the weapons and discover each new wacky character than Ratchet and Clank interact with. The humour in that game is some of the best I've seen in anything I've played.

Once we wrapped that up toward the end of the week, I put Modern Warfare 2 back in and decided to finish up its single player campaign. I was about 2/3 of the way through, I'd reckon in hindsight, meaning that it didn't take me long yesterday to get to the final gruesome scene. Along the way, Washington, D.C. was hit by an EMP and the White House came under attack, but hey! Better it happen in a video game than in real life!

Now I'm trying to figure out what to play next. I had thought about redoing the first Resistance game after watching a retrospective on it that some of the Insomniac guys held (them again!)... until I remembered that my copy is at Tammy's apartment in Toronto, while she's in the middle of a six-week long trip to Africa! So much for that idea. Maybe in August.

I may pop in my Killzone 2 disc and see how its campaign feels the second time through, as I played it in two distinct parts originally (with something else in the middle). I definitely enjoyed it the first time through, despite taking an extended break for a while.

Ah, decisions, decisions...

[Update later that evening: I decided to revisit Killzone 2 but to play it through on the second hardest difficulty this time (rather than the third hardest, aka the second easiest, that I completed it on previously). I've already died more times than I can count, but that's actually a good thing as it's making it quite a different experience for me.]

Saturday, June 12, 2010

An Issue Worthy Of Being # 700

For reasons known only to the comic book gods, this month will feature 3 major milestone issues from DC Comics: Batman # 700, Superman # 700 and Wonder Woman # 600. For the final of those three, DC had to resume the numbering from the Golden Age Wonder Woman series and combine it with a couple of subsequent runs, but all of that still makes it a legitimate celebration in its own right.

Batman # 700 came out this week, with an extra long tale written by Grant Morrison and drawn by four different artists. I've learned to love Morrison's take on the Caped Crusader, even though at times it's taxed my ability to suspend my disbelief as well as my willingness to decipher complex storylines. What I've discovered over the past few years is that it's almost always worth the effort to do both of those things where Morrison's Batman is concerned. And this anniversary issue is no exception.

Here we're treated to a tale spread over four different time periods. In the first ("Yesterday"), Bruce Wayne is the Batman and Dick Grayson is his Boy Wonder; next, we're shown the present ("Today") in which Dick is wearing the Bat-costume (as Bruce is missing and presumed dead by most of the heroes) while Damian Wayne is running around as Robin; then we're given alternate, possibly competing versions of the future - the first, ("Tomorrow") has grown up Damian having inherited his father's Bat-mantle as Morrison has suggested will happen in past issues, while the final one ("And Tomorrow") showcases the Batman Beyond vision of the future in which young Terry McGuiness is the new Batman who is mentored by a frail and aged Bruce Wayne. All four of the scenarios focus to one degree of another on the murder of a scientist who developed a form of hypnotism that allowed its participants to seemingly visit the past, providing a nice tip-of-the-hat to Silver Age Batman yarns in which B&R did exactly that. Because it's a Morrison story, there's a lot more to it than that, but that's neither here nor there. What's important is that it all works wonderfully together and provides a special issue that's sure to be enjoyed by generations of future Bat-fans.

I've read that some of today's readers were "disappointed" with Batman # 700, but I certainly wasn't one of them. Well worth every nickel.

CNN.com has a short piece on the issue, as well, if you're interested.

A Lost Theory To Crack Open Your Brain

Just when I'd almost gotten through my bad case of Lost-withdrawal, "Doc" Jensen has to go and post up Part One of his final Lost theory... and it's a doozy!

He hypothesizes that not only was the island alive (which doesn't seem too much of a stretch to me) but also that it was aware of its own future (FlashForward-like) for the past two millennia, thanks to the adventures of the time traveling castaways in Season 5. The island thus finds itself in the predicament of knowing events that will unfold over the next 2000+ years, trapping it into a pre-deterministic lockstep from which it would desperately like to free itself.

This theory makes total sense to me, although of course there's no way to know if it's what the show's writing staff intended or not. But it's pretty awesome when a TV show inspires this sort of contemplation!

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Nice Slice Of Canadiana

Vicki and I just finished watching Joshua Jackson in One Week (my first viewing of it, her second), a little Canadian film that came out last year. It's the sort of movie that will probably bore some people because it doesn't proceed like a typical Hollywood offering that delivers predictable punchlines or moves relentlessly through an action-filled plot line. For us, though, it's an example of the character-driven sort of work that John Sayles and Atom Egoyan are so known for (this one's written and directed by Michael McGowan), although admittedly not quite at that level.

We both enjoyed it, with Vicki saying that it was just as good the second time around. And how can you not like any movie that features a scene involving the Stanley Cup?

Speaking Of That Old Bank Job Of Mine

Next week marks the 24th anniversary of the day I started working at the bank. That means that, in about a week's time, Vicki and I will begin our 25th year of knowing each other (we met shortly after I started there, as we both were in training at the same time on account of being new additions to the Systems department).

25th year... geez, when I put it like that, it actually sounds like a long time! How time flies!

At The Intersection Of My Last Two Jobs

As my previous work place enters its final fortnight of existence, many of its employees are still engaged in the search for gainful employment beyond June 25th (others, fortunately, have already found such relief). Coincidentally, I was on a lunch date today with one of my few remaining friends from the bank where I worked before switching jobs in 2001. As it happened, he was telling me about a manager friend of his who'd recently complained to him that all of the employees from the soon-to-be-shuttered company that he'd interviewed and extended offers to were declining those offers, sometimes in a somewhat rude manner.

I, of course, couldn't help but think back to this post, from three and a half years ago, in which I lamented the entitlement culture that was growing there. Now, for all I know, the bank may be paying terribly compared to what we made at my last job; but I really wonder about the attitude - if this perception is in any way accurate - that would lead someone to not just turn down a job but also burn a bridge in the process. And the bridge might not just be burned for the one or two individuals in question, as things like this can tarnish an entire company's reputation if it happens more than once. I hope it's an exaggeration, but on the other hand: I can't say as it would completely surprise me if it were true in a few cases. After all, I worked with quite a few people who had no notion of just how good they had it, and who also tended to behave as if Mommy or Daddy would come along and clean up any (literal or figurative) mess they happened to make. So this might just be an extension of that, if true.

"You Should Blog Your First Swim Of The Season"

That was Vicki, to me, seconds ago. Yes, I just took my first dip. Pool temp was around 76 F (~ 25 C), which is well within my tolerance this time of year. Unfortunately, the heater was turned OFF while I was in, as one of the siding guys was working on a ladder right over it and didn't want to broiled alive while he did so! Just the latest example of awesomely terrible timing we've had, including my putting a load of laundry in right before they took the clothesline down yesterday, and them working on the back porch during the only part of the day yesterday when I had a student here to be tutored... in the kitchen, right next to the back porch!

Anyway, one swim down, hopefully many, many more to come!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (In Reverse Order)

First, the ugly, as previously seen on this blog:


Now, I only consider the following image to be "bad" due to its notable lack of water:


And finally we come to the undeniably good - the return of our pool, sporting a new liner, full of water and being warmed up by a newly-functioning heater (as of about 2:30 this afternoon):


Now we just need the siding work to be finished and it'll be time for summer to be officially kicked off!

The Endless Job

Vicki's bearing the brunt of my frustration right now as I'm nearing the end of my rope with the contractors who are re-siding our house. The job started on the Tuesday after the long weekend (May 25) and was originally estimated at about a week and a half to two weeks. We're now almost through our third week, and it still doesn't look anywhere nearly finished to me. Granted, there's been one day when no work was done at all because of rain, and two half days where the morning or afternoon work was rained out. But we've also had clear days when the workers took off at 2:00, 2:30 or 3:00 (4:00 seems to be about the latest they ever work), which has got to have contributed to this thing seeming to go on forever.

Today I'd thrown a load of laundry in the washing machine because the forecast is actually clear for a change, only to discover that "the guys" had taken the clothesline down because they were working in that area of the backyard. As I said to Vicki, "I guess I'm tossing this load in the dryer, as I don't dare slow them down by asking them to put the line back up!"

They seem to be doing a good job, but holy crap is this thing ever taking forever!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Swamp Thing Is Coming Home

According to Rich Johnston's Bleeding Cool website, DC Comics is about to return the Swamp Thing to the DC Universe. If you don't follow comics, then you might be scratching your head right now and wondering just where he's returning from.

Well, in the 90s, DC created the Vertigo imprint as a place where they could publish more mature stories. Neil Gaiman's Sandman, the post-Alan Moore Swamp Thing, Hellblazer (John Constantine), Preacher, Y The Last Man, and many other sophisticated, non-superhero titles have been released under the Vertigo banner in the past two decades.

Because DC wanted to avoid sending young readers of the DC Universe titles off in search of (theoretically) unobtainable "mature readers" Vertigo offerings, there's been a standing order, pretty much from Vertigo's creation, that characters not cross back and forth between the DCU and the Vertigo line. Thus, for example, Swamp Thing has not shown up in any mainstream DC title since the early 90s. That sort of separation has always made sense to me. In fact, though, even under the Vertigo umbrella, Swamp Thing has been virtually invisible of late, which was probably a conscious decision by the powers that be. Sidelining the character was presumably done to prepare him for a return to the all-ages domain of the main imprint. (Something similar was done with the Doom Patrol characters, who went from DCU to Vertigo, then disappeared for awhile before finding themselves back with an all-ages DC Comics title several years ago.)

Considering that no writer after Moore ever really seemed to get as much mileage out of Swampy as the British madman did, I guess this is a reasonable move. There's nothing about the character that precludes him from being used in more traditional stories... I just hope they aren't planning to undo all of the great work that Moore wrought upon him. It should be interesting to see. For years, I suspect that DC wouldn't have done this for fear of pissing off Alan and providing another reason for the writer not to come back to work for the company. By now, though, there probably isn't a person working at DC Comics who still believes Moore would ever contemplate such a move for even a heartbeat. Which means that DC really has nothing to lose in this matter. Of course, if they handle Swamp Thing's return as clumsily and artistically-poorly as they did the Doom Patrol's, they also probably have very little to gain by it.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Our Family Tree

In the last couple of years, Vicki and I have become big fans of the television program, Nova, on PBS. In fact, with Lost now complete, this eclectic Science show may just be my current fave on the boob tube. I've found that, the more I learn about Science, the more everything in the universe makes sense to me. A decade ago, I probably would have said that we would never know the answers to any of the big questions in life, so why bother even worrying or wondering about them? Now I feel like most of what we really need to know is already within our grasp or else infer-able from what we've learned so far.

Anyway, the latest dollop of goodness from Nova is this interactive Who's Who in Human Evolution toy. If you're always having trouble remembering exactly how many thousands of years ago Neanderthals are thought to have died off, this is just the site for you! (Answer: approx 30,000 years ago.) I hope that we're on the cusp of having the first generation who just accept evolution as fact, like previous generations learned to replace the Earth with the Sun at the centre of our solar system after thousands of years of misinformation.

Monday, June 07, 2010

High Quality Crap That No One Wants

Thanks to a Twitter friend, I got to read this article about the effect that the introduction of Six Sigma practices often have on creativity. The title of the article is "How To Kill Innovation", and I think that the writer pretty much nails it.

That sort of quality-first, process-focused attitude toward software development was championed by one particular individual at my last job, although it wasn't formally characterized as Six Sigma until an American executive adherent of that strategy began pushing it. That was right around the time that I got fed up and quit, so I didn't actually have to live through the two years of bureaucracy that followed. But I certainly heard enough about it.

With our introduction of Agile in 2006, we (perhaps naively) wanted to deliver quality as measured by the customers' satisfaction with what they got. Any time you try to formalize the production of "quality" by automating the creative process, you're screwed before you begin. I could enthusiastically get behind the notion of "inspect and adapt"; I suspect that I would've wilted in an environment dedicated to predictability.

No Sign Of A Red Cape, But I'm Still Intrigued

Here's the trailer for Waiting for Superman, which is about the sad state of the education system in the U.S. (or the District of Columbia, specifically):

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Jupiter Takes One For The (Sol) Team

This won't come even close to topping the astonishing possibility of life on Titan that I posted about yesterday. But it's still pretty important news that Jupiter (right next door to Saturn and Titan) was recently hit by something big enough to make quite a splash. Check out the brief bit of grainy video at that link (which I heard about thanks to Vicki) and then take a moment to reflect on just how fortunate we are to have such good neighbourhood protectors, keeping us safe!

Saturday, June 05, 2010

We Are Not Alone?

Is it just me, or is this indication of signs of life on Titan potentially the biggest news of the century? Admittedly, it's early days still, and a lot of inferences are being drawn from sparse data... and yet.

Today, as I was removing some weeds from Vicki's garden in the backyard, I was marveling at how industrious life is: there, in a place that had barely enough soil for me to dig into it at all, a plant had not only established a full and vibrant root system but had then supported itself as it grew to nearly a metre in height! It really made me think that life always seems to find a way. And this news from Saturn's most interesting moon may just be another example of that very fact of Nature.

Thanks to Richard Dawkins, on Twitter, for drawing my attention to this story.

[Update Jun 8/10: A nice summary of the important caveats to this story can be found here.]

A 10-Year-Old Bug

Yesterday, as I was cataloging this week's comic purchases in my Java/SQL inventory application, I encountered a bug that has almost certainly been there since I wrote the app back in the late 90s. With it having remained unseen for so long, you might think it was date- or capacity-related, as those sorts of errors have reared their ugly heads over the past decade. But no, this was a straight up boo-boo: an SQL DELETE statement, constructed by stringing together the contents of variables and string constants, in which I neglected to surround a particular value with quotes (single apostrophes).

It was for the issue number of a comic, which in most cases is something like 24, 595 or ANN10 (for Annual # 10). For those types of values, the apostrophes are optional, it seems. But if you have something like "ANN 1", with an embedded space in it, then you need to enclose the string within the apostrophes or else you'll cause an error in your SQL command... which is exactly what happened. Fortunately, the application doesn't crash in such situations because I've put enough defensive and diagnostic code in place to handle the unexpected. Instead, I got an error message which was explicit enough to point me right to the faulty line of code, and 2 minutes later I'd fixed it, recompiled, and deleted the erroneous entry that I had originally wanted to.

But I was still amazed that the bug had lasted that long without ever being tripped. Just goes to show how software really is full of ticking time bombs.

Friday, June 04, 2010

At The Intersection Of Music And Video Games

I love it when a musician I greatly respect goes on the record saying his favourite video game is something as underrated and yet classy as Ico! That's what Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood recently revealed.

I've been itching to replay Ico for over a year now, but haven't been able to find a copy of it (we borrowed it from a friend who has since given it away). Hence my excitement at the rumours swirling that Ico will be made available for the PS/3 in a 2-pack (along with Shadow of the Colossus, which we do own but didn't enjoy as much). Presumably any such collection will debut around the time of the next offering from Team Ico, The Last Guardian.

Now I'm just sure that Jonny's as jazzed about all of that as I am!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Are You A Helicopter Parent?

Turns out, you may actually be hurting the ones you love by swooping in and solving all of their problems for them. I've definitely encountered a parent or two of that sort in my Math tutoring experiences to date.

Tammy would be quick to point out, I'm sure, that we were not that way with her (except that she's in Africa right now and not likely to find Internet access any time soon).

A Week In My Life

This week has not been a typical week for me, and I'm very happy about that fact. I don't think I'd be able to take too many runs like the last several days. Without going into gory details, I finally got the results of some medical tests that have been going on since February or so, with the news that I probably don't have kidney cancer, although they'll re-look at the situation in a year's time. The lead up to getting that welcome news was a bit nerve-wracking and certainly not something I'd want to go through every week.

Paling in comparison to that health issue was the pool saga. I've mentioned a few of the issues here and on Twitter. Perhaps the low point came around noon on Monday when the newly-installed liner had about an inch or two of water in it, and then our neighbourhood suffered an hour-long power outage. Why would it matter that the hydro went out while our pool was being filled? Well, anyone who's been through this knows that the liner has to be pulled taut against the frame while you put water in or else you run the risk of having wrinkles form in the liner all over the place. To avoid that outcome, you use a compressor to suck the air out between the liner and the foundation. Since it was an electric version that our pool guys were employing, when the power died, so did the compressor. Then we then spent the next several hours (and, to some extent, days) dealing with the ramifications of that. At one point we had at least a dozen big folds in the liner; right now there are only 3 small ones left, all in one area. The jury's still out as to whether we can completely get rid of them but the pool guys are hopeful. On average, we get about one or two power outages a year, it seems; how lovely that we'd get one during the 24-hour period when we really needed the electricity to continue flowing!

While all that fun with the "cement swimming hole" was underway, we've also had a couple of guys here replacing all of the siding on our house and covering some of the last remaining wood locations with vinyl (since I really, really don't like having to paint up high). Obviously when we planned that work we didn't know that the pool liner would need addressing, but of course both bits of work ended up overlapping completely. This meant that we had to try to keep siding debris from getting into the pool area while the liner was going in (or else it'd be trapped underneath and walked on by us and our guests for the next 10 years) as well as watching that it didn't get onto the liner where it might rip it. Thanks to all the rain this week, what was supposed to be less than two weeks' work is now looking like it'll easily fill up three. You might think that I'd be well used to the constant pounding while trying to read or work on Math problems, but you'd be wrong.

And finally, to end on a happier note... I got a hug from my yoga instructor this morning (for the first time) because I told her that one of the positions that I've always experienced a little pain doing during each session has recently become quite comfortable for me. She was thrilled to hear this, and I was happy to have even so minor a breakthrough in a week that's been quite draining.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Ouch!

Of all the ways to lose a bid to record a perfect game in baseball, this may be the worst I've ever seen: a blown call on what would (and should) have been the final out of the game! It prevented Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga from joining Roy Halladay and 19 other Major League hurlers in baseball history.

It's always tough to fault an umpire on a bang-bang play at first base, but it sounds like the wrong call was made at the most inopportune of times. If that had been the only "hit" scored in the game but had come earlier, it wouldn't be so bad... but you know that Galarraga reached first base on that play and was already congratulating himself on his perfect game, only to be stunned by the call on the field.

Wow.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Maybe Repetition Had A Place, After All

I'm finding that many of the common Math terms or techniques that used to be second nature to my generation when we were in high school have much less of a foothold (not to mention name recognition) now than they used to. For example, I referred to "the origin" in the context of graphing a function recently, and the high school student I was working with responded, "Where's that?" [It's the point (0,0) on the Cartesian plane, for those who don't remember.]

One of my two high school students has never heard of cross-multiplication, and therefore never uses it to simplify his work when solving equations where the variable is in a denominator.

Even something as fundamental as the concept of factoring an expression (or, conversely, expanding a factored expression) gives pause to some students today. One of my pupils knew factoring had something to do with dividing everything by a common value, but thought that he could do that to a standalone expression. He attempted to turn 6x + 8 into 3x + 4 by arguing that he could simply divide everything by 2.

The only conclusion I can come to is that teachers perhaps are more leery of repetition these days than they ever were with past generations. I know that some of the updates to the curriculum over the past 10+ years has specifically been aimed at making the material more interesting and relevant, which is a laudable goal. But does that mean that gone are the days when a high school Math teacher would stand at the front of a classroom and step his or her class through an elaborate solution, slowly and carefully explaining each step while using the correct terminology? I didn't know that (0,0) was called "the origin" because I read it in a textbook; I knew it because Mr Pease, in Grade 9 Math, narrated the solutions that he blackboarded every day and referred to that particular point by that specific name every chance he could. In other words, he used repetition to drill the correct name into our heads. After a few weeks of that, even the slowest student in the class had picked up on the fact that (0,0) was simply "the origin."

Perhaps that style of edification has gone out of fashion now, since I often read that teachers standing at the front of the room "lecturing" isn't an effective way to educate. And I'd agree that a non-stop diet of that can be pretty boring. But has the pendulum swung too far the other way now, such that students are missing out on the chance to learn proper Math-speak? When I tutor, I try to bring some of that old-school approach back. I do my best to lead by example, in the hope that my students will pick up a trick or two from me... not because I tell them they have to, but because I use them myself, over and over. The jury's still out as to whether or not it's working at all (these things take time, after all). But I'm hopeful.