All posts by lambic

The Job

I’ve been working at the university for 15 years now. That’s my longest tenure with any employer. I’ll get my 15 year pin next year (not this year because my first year was on contract).

When I started I was working on the internal financial systems but a few years ago I moved to the newly formed “Content and Collaboration Solutions department” and became a web developer, working on the main university website and all the sub sites. Since then I’ve become a senior web developer.

Back then the website ran on a custom built CMS written in PHP. We still have a few sites running on that old CMS but the vast majority have since been moved to the Drupal platform; still PHP but with a more modern framework. We started on Drupal 6 and have just (almost) finished migrating everything to Drupal 7.

In a way the web group is the black sheep of the IT department. We are the only group to use almost exclusively open source tools and we are were the first group to practice automated deployment and continuous integration. We also have to stay at the head of the curve on the tools we use because the web world moves faster than any other area in IT.

We are also one of only a couple of teams using agile techniques in our work. We organise what we need to do into 3 week iterations and have daily scrum meetings to keep the team up to date on what everyone is doing. Agile isn’t for everyone, but it works really well for us for the most part. The key is to be not too rigid with the rules, or in other words, be agile.

Overall I really enjoy my job. The work is interesting and varied, the team I work with are a great bunch of people, and working for a university means I get a good amount of time off for that precious work/life balance.

The Gaming

My biggest hobby has become gaming. Not so much video gaming any more but table top gaming.

Every Monday night for the past 9 years I’ve been getting together with five other guys (there was a woman too but she “retired”) to play Dungeons and Dragons. We currently play 3.5 edition but we’re switching to 5th soon.

There are two campaigns running in parallel, one set in a world of undead where I play a gnome rogue called Garwicket, and the other set in a more mixed world where I played a fighter called Hunter, until he got eaten.

On top of that I’ve started a Pathfinder campaign with some of the kids at the boy’s homeschooling centre. It’s my first experience in being a Game Master and so far it’s going very well, although managing 7 kids all under 12 can be a little chaotic.

When I’m not playing RPGs I also play Magic: The Gathering, which is an expensive hobby but I’ve tried to keep my card purchasing to a minimum. We mostly play the Commander variant these days.

We also play the occasional board game, like Small World, Pandemic, Game of Thrones, Lords of Waterdeep and of course trusty old Settlers of Catan. I watch Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop to keep on top of new and interesting games.

So far the boy hasn’t been hugely into gaming but I’m hoping he’ll get more involved as he gets older. He does play Small World and Pandemic with me sometimes but he’s not quite ready for Pathfinder, and didn’t enjoy Magic: The Gathering when I tried to teach him.

Gaming is a great way to blow off some steam and get away from computers for a few hours and a great way for someone who isn’t particularly social to interact with people, so perfect for me.

The Boy

The boy is 9 and a half. How did that happen? A few months ago he was just a toddler, and now he’s almost in double digits. I’m suspecting some kind of weird time dilation effect.

He is a strange boy in many ways.

He loves to read and draw comic strips; his favourites are Get Fuzzy, Bloom County and Dilbert. He also reads The Oatmeal  and XKCD when he thinks we aren’t looking. His own creations include Jake The Runner, a character he imagines running beside the car whenever we are on car journeys.

He’s a Communist with Marxist tendencies who believes in equal rights for everyone, including kids. Especially kids. He’s scared of the KKK and spent some time researching them on Wikipedia. He sent some of his allowance money to a trans-gender kid who didn’t have enough money to change their name. He worries that a lady in one of our neighbouring houses works too hard because he always sees her gardening.

He knows HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and has written many web-pages and games on Khan Academy including pages on non-discrimination and how Canada invented maple syrup. He also wanted his own website so he now has one on my sooper-sekret server. Of course he also loves video games, including MineCraft, Terraria, Crossy Road, My Singing Monsters and Geometry Dash.

He’s only just learned to ride a bike, but he basically just got straight on and started riding. When he’s not on his bike he’s on his scooter. He hasn’t learned to swim yet but he loves the pool, water parks and splash pads. Hates the shower though. Really really hates the shower.

He watches too much tv, but he’s only allowed to watch French tv during the week which keeps him bilingual and assuages our guilt a little. He loves Doctor Who, tolerates Northern Exposure because he knows I love it, and also enjoys Atlantis, The Simpsons, The Amazing World of Gumball, Adventure Time, and various weird old British stuff I’ve introduced him to.

Overall he’s a fantastic kid. Quirky and geeky but also warm, caring and thoughtful. So far he hasn’t turned into an asshole so I guess we must be doing something right.

The House

Eight years ago we said we would never buy another house.

Two years ago we bought another house. So much for that.

The good news is we didn’t make the same mistakes as last time: we didn’t buy a house too big to manage. Instead we bought a tiny house, almost TARDIS like in its proportions. We also didn’t go back to the burbs, we’re still close enough to downtown to have a nearby Metro station and it only takes me 30 minutes to get to work.

The bad news is we bought it while we still had 9 months left  on our apartment lease, and were unable to find anyone to sub-let it. We’re still recovering from paying rent and a mortgage for that time.  We live, we learn. It did mean we could take our time moving though.

It’s nice to be back in a house again. No more landlords to deal with, none of the constraints of apartment living. We have front and back yards, a deck, a place to barbecue, a nice kitchen and enough space for a family of three. The boy can play his drums with impunity and I can turn the TV up whenever I want.

We’ll never rent again…

The Biking

In an attempt to be more active and get vaguely into shape I’ve taken up biking again. I used to bike to work, but it’s a little bit too far now and I’m afraid of having another bike stolen.  So as I get a fair amount of time off in the summer I’ve opted for leisure biking.

My first couple of rides were along the canal, one as far as our old Condo, about 10km, and one to Parc René-Lévesque, about 20km.

My next ride took me to Dorval, which was 30km with a strong headwind on the way out there. That was on St Jean Baptiste day so I saw all the celebratory events being set up and got myself a Fleur de Lis flag.

For my last ride I decided to head in a different direction. Out on Nun’s Island there’s an entrance on a bike path that goes out onto the “Ice Control Structure” in the St Lawrence. It’s a long straight path, and despite crazy swarms of bugs I managed to make it a 40km ride. I stopped about halfway around the structure and found a nice log by the river to sit on and rest before heading back.

My next destination will probably be Beaconsfield and I’m hoping to get up to 100km by the end of the summer. Looking around for somewhere 50km away I came across Oka, so that’s where I hope to end up.

The Disease

It was a week before Christmas in 2011 when I suddenly started suffering from gastric bleeding. I went to the emergency room, terrified that I was dying.

After spending a night in a hospital corridor (free healthcare is great but sometimes the system is overwhelmed), I was admitted to a private room and the tests began. After X-rays, a CT scan, about one hundred blood tests, and a colonoscopy I was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. By that time the bleeding had stopped and after confirming that my iron levels were ok I was sent home. On Christmas Eve, so I was home in time for Christmas.

So, I have Crohn’s Disease. Although it’s primarily a gastrointestinal disease, it is actually a systemic disease and can have many side effects. Sometimes it can be very severe, other times very mild. There is no cure, but it can be controlled.

For me, it has been fairly mild. I’ve only had 3 or 4 flares since the diagnosis but it has also affected my joints, causing leg and back pain.  I have to regularly take painkillers, as well as a probiotic which is supposed to help control the flares.

Even though it’s something I have to live with for the rest of my life, I’m happy that it wasn’t something much worse, and I’m happy that so far the symptoms have been mild for me. I have good doctors and all things considered I’m relatively healthy.

To keep myself healthy I’ve taken up biking again, but that’s a topic for another post.

Opus and Superstitious Behaviour

A few years ago I was lucky enough to spend two weeks working with four dolphins in Hawaii, studying their ability to learn language, specifically sign language. Occasionally the dolphins would exhibit behaviour which was not expected and they would start to repeat that behaviour every time you gave a particular sign. For example you might give the sign to nod their head, and the dolphins nods, but then also spits a bit of water. The spit was not required, but because the dolphin gets rewarded for the nod, they start to incorporate the spit. The staff at the lab called this “superstitious behaviour”. Doing something causes a reward to happen, so keep doing it.

All that to say that I’ve noticed some Montreal metro passengers have started exhibiting superstitious behaviour. We have new rechargable ticket cards which are used by placing them on a card reader at the turnstile. There is a small delay while the card is processed – about a second – then the green light comes on and you can proceed. But people are impatient; they place their card and nothing happens immediately, so they start waving it about and flipping it over. Eventually the green light comes on, they get their reward. Their primitive dolphin-like brains think the waving and flipping caused the green light to come on so they keep doing it.

That’s my metro observation for today.

Canadian Thanksgiving

Last weekend was Canadian Thanksgiving, so it was time to head for the country. We picked up Granny (she’s 96 you know) on Sunday morning and drove up to the Laurentians with Aidan chattering away the whole time. It was a perfect Autumn day: clear blue skies, crisp clean air, not too cold, not too hot and the trees were showing off their Fall colours in style.

When we arrived Aidan went off to pick arugula with his Grandma (Bama) before we sat down to a nice lunch of cheese and crackers and salad. After that it was time for Aidan to go inspect the chickens, the rabbits, the “Big Bird”, the pond, the tiny pumpkin, Ricky’s homemade smoker where the turkey was smoking away, the new shed, and the garden hose. Thankfully I managed to avoid the wild sprayings of the hose.

The rest of the afternoon was spent playing scrabble with Granny and Bama while Aidan climbed in and out of the toybox. Then it was time for the big event, Thanksgiving Dinner. We had smoked turkey, roasted potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, some mashed turnip, sausage stuffing and turkey gravy, all washed down with some fine wine and a little bit of ‘shine. That delicious main course was followed up with the obligatory and equally delicious pumpkin pie.

I collapsed on the sofa for the remainder of the evening, clutching my engorged belly and enjoying the roaring fire before giving in and going to bed early (I’d stayed up late the night before to watch the Japanese Grand Prix). The next morning Aidan helped Ricky make pancakes which we devoured with maple syrup, bacon and tea before heading back into the Little Smoke (well Toronto is the Big Smoke).

Why Scientology Won’t Go Away

Skeptic Circle
Skeptic Circle

Most UFO cults don’t stay around for very long; they either self destruct, like Heaven’s Gate or fade away, like the Aetherius Society. Even the Raelians have slowly faded into obscurity.

Scientology though refuses to die. Despite being declared a criminal organisation in Canada and other countries. Despite the huge amount of negative press they’ve had on the internet and elsewhere. Despite horrific stories like Lisa McPherson. Despite the now common knowledge that Scientologists believe in a galactic empire commanded by Xenu. Despite all these things, Scientology hangs in there on the edge of obscurity. And I think I know why.

L Ron Hubbard was a cheap hack and a fraud, but he wasn’t stupid. He and his followers set up programs that have an air of legitimacy. Underneath the thin veneer of respectability they are all bullshit, but that little bit of polish makes them appeal to the weak, down-trodden and credulous; the people they are aimed at. Let’s take a look at some of those programs:

Applied Scholastics

This is the “get ’em while they’re young” approach; a learning methodology developed by Hubbard to teach kids basic literacy. It sounds great; teaching kids to read is a noble endeavour, so there you have that air of legitimacy. But this program was developed by a guy who could barely write himself (have you tried reading Battlefield Earth?); a guy who had no background or experience in teaching young kids. And when you strip away all the polish it’s just another way to get people into the “church”.

There is also nothing particularly new or special about Hubbard’s “study tech”. The prime concept of Applied Scholastics is: if you don’t understand a word, look it up in a dictionary. Secondary to that, kids should not tackle complex subjects until they’ve finished the simple ones. That’s it, there’s not much else to it. This is hailed as revolutionary by Scientologists but it really isn’t.

Narconon

OK so if the “get ’em while they’re young” approach fails, how about “get ’em while they’re weak”? Targetting the weak and downtrodden is how Scientology gets most of their recruits. Narconon is a perfect example. Narconon targets drug addicts, people who have hit rock bottom and have nowhere else to go. Drug rehabilitation is another noble cause, something that can be offered for the good of society; but once again it’s just a front, a veneer of respectability to draw people in.

Once again we’re talking about a system developed by a man with no background or experience in the field. Hubbard wasn’t a doctor and had no medical training, he just made this stuff up, and it shows. Narconon involves pumping addicts with huge amounts of vitamin and mineral supplements and then putting them in a sauna to “detox” their bodies. After that they have to perform “TRs” (training routines), a standard Scientology technique involving things like yelling at ashtrays (yes, really). For this, patients pay up to $30,000 and risk getting brainwashed into the “church” or worse.

Criminon

Continuing with the targetting of the weak and downtrodden, Criminon is another Scientology front. This time aimed at another weak segment of our population, prisoners, Criminon is a “rehabilitation program” for criminals. Again it sounds noble and philanthropic, but it’s just another front, just another way to get recruits.

Criminon isn’t very much different from Narconon, it includes the “purification” methods of vitamins, minerals and saunas, as well as written tests and the mandatory reading of Hubbard’s “A Way To Happiness” wherein he sets out his commandments. Criminon, like Narconon, has no scientific basis and no scientific evidence to support its efficacy. It’s the ramblings of a madman and yet too many people take it at face value.

Citizens Commission on Human Rights

Ooh, that sounds important and special doesn’t it? Human Rights, causes don’t come much nobler. But what is the Citizens Commission on Human Rights really? Yes, it’s another Scientology front group. CCHR is basically an anti-psychiatry organisation. Hubbard hated psychiatrists, claiming that every one could be accused of murder and mayhem. The stated goal of CCHR is to fight against the supposed “human rights crimes” committed by mental health professionals. What they’re really doing is pushing Scientology.

Other Groups

I could go into detail about all the other Scientology front groups, but I think you get the idea. Scientology creates organisations that sound respectable, that sound like worthy causes, but in reality they’re just pushing a UFO cult. Some other examples of Scientology fronts are:

  • Americans Preserving Religious Liberty (previously Alliance for the preservation of religious liberty)
  • The Cult Awareness Network (previously legitimate until it was sued into bankruptcy by Scientology)
  • The Way To Happiness Foundation
  • Concerned Businessman’s Association of America
  • HealthMed Clinic
  • World Literacy Crusade
  • Downtown Medical
  • ABLE (Association for Better Living and Education)
  • Better Family Relations Association
  • Foundation for Religious Tolerance
  • East Hollywood People Against Crime
  • Environmental Task Force
  • Foundation for the Advancement in Science and Education (!)
  • International Academy of Detoxification Specialists (targetting firefighters after 9/11)
  • Library Donation Service (to get Hubbard’s crappy books into libraries)
  • Second Chance (AKA Narconon AKA Scientology)

Don’t they all sound wholesome and lovely? Sadly they’re not. They’re the tendrils of a “church” desperately trying to stay alive and rake in as much money as possible.

The many arms of Xenu if you will.

The Sid and Patty Show

Patty, Aidan and Sid
Patty, Aidan and Sid

Yesterday we headed out to a downtown theatre with Aidan, his Bama and his bunny to see Patty and Sid on tour. Patty and Sid are the presenters of Kids CBC, a commercial free selection of shows for pre-schoolers shown every morning between 7 and 11.

Patty and Sid were joined on stage by Curious George and Bo from Bo on the Go and on video (presumably live via satellite) by Drumheller, the skeletal dinosaur from Alberta, Mama Yama, the animated yam/penis from Ontario, Saumon the french-speaking salmon from Quebec and Captain Claw, the old sea-dog lobster from Nova Scotia. Hilarity ensued as they collected the necessary pieces for Curious George’s surprise birthday party.

Aidan was a little overwhelmed by the whole thing, but still had a good time, and started getting really into it about 5 minutes before it finished. After that we lined up (luckily close to the start of the very long line) to meet Sid, Patty, George and Bo. When it was Aidan’s turn, he started by telling Sid and Patty about “Kerry and John’s Birthday Party” before eventually sitting down for a photo. Meeting Curious George had a slightly different effect though, involving Aidan cowering on the floor in terror. I managed to get him onto my lap for a photo with George and Bo, but his face was buried in my shoulder. The traumas we put our kids through.

Aidan has been talking about Sid and Patty ever since, including to the waiter at dinner last night. I guess they made an impression.

Le Fete Des Enfants

Montreal, the city of festivals, puts on a festival for the kids every year at Parc Jean Drapeau. This year we decided to take Aidan.

My first piece of advice for people thinking about going (next year, it’s over for this year) is to arrive early, and leave early. We arrived around 10am and it was fairly quiet, but when we left at 1:30 there were hoards of people in the park with many more arriving.

My second piece of advice, if you have a small child, is to take a stroller; I’m glad we did. The festival is huge, covering most of the park, so there is much walking involved. We started in the area for toddlers, where Aidan took a foot-powered car for a drive around a “mail route” to deliver a piece of “mail” in the appropriate “mailbox”. Being the mailman has been a favourite game of his for a while so he liked that a lot.

Then we found a place where teenage girls were constructing elaborate buildings from cardboard boxes which were then being randomly painted by small children. Aidan, in oversized paint shirt, spent a creative 20 minutes painting a box in red, blue and orange.

After washing the paint off Aidan’s face we headed over to the “Petit Ferme” where we met hungry goats, a sleeping cow, dozing sheep, chickens, bunnies and a slightly pissed off llama. We also sat in a big blue tractor for a few precious seconds before it was the next kid’s turn.

On the way to find lunch we had to stop at the “Ile de sand” so Aidan could dig for a while, even though the organisers had inexplicably failed to provide digging implements. It was the biggest, and probably cleanest sandbox he’d ever been in though.

We were intrigued about lunch because the guide told us it was international fare, including food from Brazil, Mexico, Europe, Africa, Quebec and Haiti. A lot of the food turned out to be variations on hot-dogs, like the “afrodog” and the “eurodog”, although the Haiti tent did have grilled pork and chicken, and the Mexico tent was selling Mangos made to look like flowers. We had eurodogs, washed down with iced tea and followed up with an ice cream.

We had one more stop to make before we took the now slightly cranky boy home. We’d promised him a fire engine, so we went looking for the fire engine, which happened to be right on the other side of the park. Eventually we found it, and Aidan sat in the back seat and both front seats, and got to try on a fireman’s helmet before the fireman noticed and took it away.

After I dented that we were going to the festival, he warned me to watch out for pedophiles, but I was actually very impressed with the number of police and security people in attendance, not to mention the volunteers taking care of lost children and of the general running of the event. The distinctive volunteer t-shirts could be seen everywhere and we never felt unsafe or saw any dodgy looking men. Well, there was that one guy, but he turned out to be one of the official clowns…

The Pulled Pork

The arrangement for our stay in the country cottage was that each family unit would cook at least one meal. For my designated meal I decided to try pulled pork on the barbecue. I’ve done it once before back in Beaconsfield, but the pork didn’t “pull” as easily as I would’ve liked so this was my chance to get it right.

The day before we headed North, I went to Atwater market where a very nice butcher man cut me a 3.5kg chunk of pork shoulder with the bone in. He explained to me where the bones were and how they would come out and gave me a rough cooking time (minimum 7 hours, best with 12). I took the meat home, rubbed it with a dry rub of paprika, black pepper, mustard powder and sugar, wrapped it in a plastic bag and put it in the fridge.

Pulled pork is great on it’s own, but for the perfect experience it needs a bit of sauce. Into a saucepan I threw some chicken stock, some apple cider vinegar, some molasses, a couple of minced dates, a minced garlic clove, some chopped tomatoes and salt and pepper. After bringing it to the boil I let it simmer until it reduced by about half then poured it into a mason jar ready for transport.

We headed up to the country with the pork in a cooler, which went straight into the fridge when we got there. I needed the meat to be at room temperature when it went on the barbecue so I got up ridiculously early the next morning (about 5:30), took the meat out, gave it another rub with the dry rub and left it to acclimatize while I went back to bed. Two hours later I was up again, lighting one side of the barbecue, getting it up to about 250F, putting the pork no the unlit side and closing the lid.

Apart from occasionally checking the temperature, I didn’t touch it for the rest of the day. The meat started cooking at 8am, so if we wanted to eat at a reasonable time I wasn’t going to be able to go for the full 12 hours but I decided to try for 10. In Beaconsfield I had cooked it for 7 hours, which definitely wasn’t enough.

At 6pm I took the meat off the barbecue and let it rest while I cooked some potatoes and heated up the sauce. At 6:30 came the moment of truth, as I started pulling the pork. It fell apart almost perfectly; another hour or two would’ve cooked it to perfection, but it was 95% there.

As I pulled off pieces, I threw them into the sauce until I had a saucepan full of sauced up meat which I took straight to the table with some mashed potatoes and one of my mother-in-law’s superior salads. Everyone tucked in, including the vegetarian, and most people had seconds, so I think it was a success.

The sister, the movies and the country

My sister just left after spending a few days with us as part of her round the world trip. You can read about her stay, and the rest of her travels on her travel blog. While she was here we saw movies, had a birthday dinner, and other dinners, and spent a few days in the Laurentians.

On the night Philippa arrived we ordered sushi because inexplicably she had never tried it. We also went to Baton Rouge for her birthday dinner (I’m not supposed to mention that she’s turning 30 today) and had take-out from Hot and Spicy and breakfast at Eggspectations. The rest of the time I managed to cook, except one night when Philippa decided to cook us curry.

We went to the cinema in torrential rain to see Hancock, a good superhero romp which would not have worked without Will Smith as the reluctant hero. The story was lacking but the action was good and the comedy made me chuckle. At home we saw Juno, which was amazing, Ellen Page can do no wrong. We also saw Superbad which was very silly (I had been warned) but still enjoyable, and I re-watched Fargo and The Usual Suspects to give Philippa a chance to see some true classics.

The big event of the week was our trip to the country. Jen’s grandmother used to own a cottage on Lake Louisa which she sold a few years ago. The current owners were nice enough to offer us the place for a week for free so that granny could enjoy it one more time. We went there to stay with Jen’s granny, mother, step-dad, uncle, aunt, cousin, cousin’s boyfriend, brother, sister-in-law and two nephews. With us there it was a crowd of 14 at peak time which made for a very loud cottage. The weather wasn’t great but we managed to enjoy ourselves with some kayaking, swimming, relaxing, playing silly games, drinking beer and wine and eating good food. I’ll blog about my food contribution tomorrow.

Sadly the cottage adventure was cut short slightly by the death of my brother-in-law’s wife’s dad. He had been ill for some time but it was still very sad. Oliver Carmichael was a kind man who did a huge amount for his family and community. He is remembered here.

The Wedding

On Saturday we attended my brother-in-law’s wedding. This involved me dressing in a suit and tie and entering a church, so for a while there was a serious risk of an improbability explosion of massive proportions. Luckily that was avoided and the event proceeded without a hitch, apart from Aidan talking through the first part of the ceremony before I took him outside.

We had an umbrella with us because rain was forecast, and indeed it was raining when I stepped outside. Aidan refused to let go of the umbrella so I spent the next 30 minutes crouched at small boy height so I could stay dry. Finally we were called back inside for photos with “the princess”, as Aidan had named the bride.

By the time we got outside again I was hot and bothered by the rain and the suit and the church and the disobedient boy, so we went home to change into something more comfortable for the reception. I threw on a less stiff shirt and some casual trousers and we headed out again.

The reception was in an art gallery which was a very cool space, my idea of an ideal apartment. When we arrived, a jazz trio were playing their piano, saxophone and double bass and Aidan was instantly mesmerised. He was still clutching the precious umbrella which he started to strum while he gazed trance-like at the musicians. Most of the meal was spent taking turns with Jen to watch Aidan, who couldn’t be pulled away from the musicians, and eat.

The food was excellent, starting with a melted goat cheese, courgette and tomato concoction including a tiny blob of an incredibly flavourful balsamic reduction. My main course was an anonymous white fish with an unusual texture and delicious taste with a selection of perfectly cooked vegetables. Dessert was fresh strawberries and pears with cheese, and favours of belgian chocolates hand-made by the bride, who happens to be a chef.

Meanwhile, Aidan was desperate to play the piano. I kept telling him he had to ask the man, and he kept getting closer and closer to the man until finally he gathered up the courage to ask the question. The man said no. I can’t really blame him, he was a hired musician playing someone elses piano in someone elses venue at someone elses wedding and he obviously didn’t feel it was his place to make that kind of decision. So we went and asked the groom instead, and he said yes. Aidan spent the next 10 minutes in kiddie heaven gently playing the same two or three piano keys until the proprietor told us we had to stop because she’d had a complaint. Bah, humbug.

Shortly after that though, the dancing started, which was something new and exciting for the boy. We took him onto the dance floor where he stayed for the rest of the night, resisting any attempt at removal until we finally dragged him off at 11pm to take him home to bed.

A Book Meme

Update: Apparently the list doing the rounds is quite a bit different from the actual list on the BBC site, so at the bottom of this post I’ve done it again with the “real” list. Thank’s to Melissa for spotting that. I do slightly better with that list, 34 books read.

Shatnerian tagged me (he tagged me on Facebook, what’s that all about?). The following is a list compiled by the BBC of books we’re supposed to have read. Bold means I’ve read it, underlined means I love it and italics (red) means I started it but didn’t finish.

36 is part of 33 so I’m not sure why it’s separate. Same with 98 and 14.

I left John’s comment on #42, because he’s right, and it’s #42 too!

I’ve only read 26, I’m a very bad Brit apparently.

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible (I only read the sexy parts)
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34 Emma – Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown (ok, why is this even on the list?)
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kirouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Now for the “real” list:

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling

6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis

10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien

26. Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
30. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
40. Emma, Jane Austen
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
53. The Stand, Stephen King
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell

59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
67. The Magus, John Fowles
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett

70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
75. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
78. Ulysses, James Joyce
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
83. Holes, Louis Sachar
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Me and Calendars

Over the years I’ve tried many different ways to remember stuff. I’ve tried paper calendars and diaries, which just got forgotten and gathered dust. I’ve tried post-it notes, which just get lost. I’ve tried keeping stuff in my head, which works some of the time, but the amount of time it works decreases with age.

Of course, I’ve also tried many software solutions. I’ve tried iCal, which is great but not portable enough. I’ve tried Google Calendar, which is very cool but for some reason doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried 30Boxes, which is beautifully designed but also doesn’t quite work for me. I’ve even tried Outlook, but that has the same problem as iCal.

After realising that graphical calendar applications don’t work for me, and because of my love of the command line, I went looking for a command line application. I found remind, and so far it’s working better than anything I’ve tried before.

Remind uses text files to store reminders, so you can edit them with any text editor you like, or write scripts to add reminders, or there are front-end applications if you like that sort of thing. The contents of the files look something like this:

REM      Feb  2        MSG Ground Hog Day%
REM      Feb 14        MSG Valentine's Day%
REM      Mar 17        MSG St. Patrick's Day%
REM      Apr  1        MSG April Fool's Day%
REM      May  5        MSG Cinco de Mayo%
REM  Sun May [Week_2]  MSG Mother's Day%
REM  Mon May [Week_3]  MSG Victoria Day%
REM 06 Nov 2008 +3 AT 13:00 +120 MSG Doctor %b.%
REM 24 Nov 2008 +3 AT 08:00 +60 MSG Dentist %b.%
REM Tue 1 +3 MSG Quiz Night %b.%

REM is the keyword for reminder, which most of your entries will begin with (there are other keywords, but for simple usage REM is all you need).

After REM comes the date the reminder will happen on. There is a huge variety of possible date formats making for ultimate flexibility. You can specify a full date, like the Doctor appointment above, or just a partial date, such as the statutory holidays above or even the quiz night entry, which evaluates to the first Tuesday of every month.

After the date you can specify an optional delta, for example +3, which means remind me every day starting 3 days before the event. You can also use *n which means repeat every n days.

Next is the optional time setting, for example AT 13:00, meaning the event happens at 1pm. This can also have a delta, for example +60, meaning remind me 60 minutes before the event starts.

Finally, we tell remind what to do when it’s time to remind us. Usually we just want a message, so that’s what the MSG keyword is for, which is followed by the message itself. The message can contain substitution variables, such as the %b in the above examples. The %b evaluates to “in n days”, “tomorrow” or “today” depending on how close we are to the event.

There are many other options, and it can be a little overwhelming if you try to figure it all out, but if you stick with the basics until you find you need something more, it’s a very powerful tool. There are lots of useful resources relating to remind at Roaring Penguin.

Jean Tremblay doesn’t care about Human Rights

The Quebec Human Rights Commission has quite rightly ruled that city councils, including Saguenay, should stop praying before or during council meetings because it violates religious freedom.

Sadly, the mayor of Saguenay, Jean Tremblay, doesn’t care about human rights because apparently he’s a religious bigot:

“I know they prefer me to stop, but I won’t do that,” he told CBC News. “For me, God is much more important than the commission. When I arrive on the other side, maybe in 10 years, 20 years, I don’t know, they won’t ask me if I follow the commission, they will ask me if I follow God. And I follow God.”

He also said that the 30 second prayer addresses all religions… Is that so Mr Tremblay? Do you mention Vishnu in that prayer? And Mohammed? What about Xenu? Buddha? The Flying Spaghetti Monster?

What about us atheists? How does the absence of religion fit into a religious prayer exactly? Or are we expected to leave the room while you wish to your imaginary sky friend?

Here’s an idea for you Mr Tremblay: Pray at home before you go to the meeting, or stop off at a church on your way. That way you’re only wasting your own time, not everyone elses.

The New Job

I have a new job!

No, I’m not leaving McGill… Today I accepted a new position at McGill as a web developer in the Web Services Group, the team who look after the content of mcgill.ca and are involved in other web initiatives around campus.

It’s a step in a new direction for me. The WSG use mostly open source tools, which I’ve been playing with personally since I first installed linux on an old computer several years ago but I haven’t been able to use in a work setting. I’m stepping away from Oracle, the proprietary RDBMS that I’ve been working with for 20 years, to embrace open source technologies like PHP, Python and PostgreSQL. It looks like there might even be a bit of WordPress thrown into the mix.

I’ve had six good years here on the Finance IT team but I’m really looking forward to something new.

Conversation with the boy

The other evening I was sitting on the couch with the boy, watching Balamory. The conversation went something like this:

Aidan: What are you doing Daddy?
Me: Watching TV, what are you doing?
Aidan: Looking for something.
Me: Oh, what are you looking for?
Aidan: Something on the wall.
Me: On the wall? What on the wall?
Aidan: A big enormous thing.
Me: Ohh, a big enormous thing? What kind of big enormous thing?
Aidan: A blue one.
Me: A blue one? OK.
Aidan: And yellow.
Me: A blue and yellow big enormous thing on the wall?
Aidan:Ya. And pink.
Me: A pink, blue and yellow big enormous thing on the wall?
Aidan: Ya.
Me: Well did you find it?
Aidan: No.

Aleaping we will go

It’s February 29th today, so I thought, like 90% of bloggers on the planet, I would do a post about leap years.

Those silly people who think our planet is less than 6000 years old also sometimes think that the leap year thing is because science somehow screwed up and we have to fudge the numbers occasionally or that it’s because the Earth’s orbit is speeding up.

In fact, the leap year was refined over many years, starting with the romans who added an extra month every couple of years, basically whenever they felt like it, to keep the seasons in sync. Then Julius came along and realised the seasons were still all messed up, so abolished the extra month concept, replacing it with a slightly longer year of 365 days (it was 355 before) with extra days added to various months. There was also an extra day added every three years to try to keep the seasons lined up, but it wasn’t enough and they drifted again. A few years later the period was changed to four years, and things were better, but not perfect.

It wasn’t until the 1500s that someone realised that things weren’t quite right. It happened to be a Pope, Pope Gregory XIII to be precise. He noticed that if things carried on, Easter would eventually bump into Christmas, and we obviously couldn’t have Jesus being nailed to the cross on the day he was born, so he changed the rules, with the help of Kepler’s astronomical observations.

The Gregorian Calendar has been used ever since, and the leap year calculation remains unchanged. The calculation Gregory implemented is one I’ve used many times in computer programs. A year is a leap year if it’s divisible by 4 but not divisible by 100 except when it’s divisible by 400 (that’s why 2000 was a leap year).

Our year now averages out to be 365.2425 days long which is accurate enough that we’ll only be out by one day after 4000 years.

We need more Popes like Gregory XIII, even though he was a bit of a bastard to the English and Irish.

The Snip

Having already produced an excellent and incredibly cute one, we decided we didn’t need to generate any more children, so last Thursday I headed out to the West Island to have my vasa deferentia disconnected.

I had shaved the area the night before and purchased an “athletic support” as requested by the doctor so I was prepared.

I was ushered into a small room by possibly the oldest nurse I’ve ever seen who asked me to remove my sweatpants (“leave your underwear on for now”) and lie down on the operating table, where she draped my parts with a surgical cloth and pulled my boxers down to my knees.

A few minutes later the doctor swaggered in. Dr Kurgansky is one of those eccentric doctors, complete with extravagant handlebar moustache, polka-dot bow-tie and a serious god-complex swagger. In his Eastern European accent he asked if I had any questions, then delved into the operation.

After locating my first vas deferens he gave me my first injection, the only time I felt any pain. After that I didn’t feel a thing, and we talked about Apple computers (his patient chart system has been paperless since 1996, and contains 150,000 charts, all stored in a piece of custom software written on Mac OS9 and he’s trying to get it upgraded to OS10). He was gesturing so animatedly with both hands that for a moment I thought he’d forgotten the reason we were there, but then he got back to it and administered the second injection, which I didn’t feel at all.

About 20 minutes after I’d entered the room and about 10 minutes after the doctor had started, he was slapping a band-aid on my scrotum, telling me to get dressed and walking out. I climbed into my jockstrap with a bit of help from the nurse, who told me there were three other men in the waiting room waiting for vasectomies so I should leave with a smile on my face.

Jen had gone shopping to avoid waiting room boredom tantrums from the boy, so I called her and she came and got me, parking 200 yards away in an obvious attempt to see me walking funny. We headed home where I took two Ibuprofen and applied an ice pack to the sensitive area. Things were definitely uncomfortable for the next 24 hours, but I wouldn’t describe it as painful. I could walk around and do light chores, and by the following evening I felt comfortable enough to go out to a birthday party.

I won’t be sterile for a couple of months, but it’s healing well and I’m happy I had it done. When I got home after the operation I was reading my newsfeed and discovered, coincidentally, that Terra Sigillata had not only had the operation on the same day as me, but had live-blogged it. A brave man, who inspired this post, even though 6 days after the event isn’t quite a liveblog.

Happy Darwin Day

Today is Darwin Day, a day to celebrate the life of a man who built the foundations of the biological sciences we know today and a day to celebrate science and reason in general. I wanted to write something appropriate for the day but  I couldn’t think of anything topical so I decided to step back in time and explain how I got interested in science.

When I started senior school (that’s high school in North American terminology) the sciences were still split into three subjects (combining them was a huge mistake as far as I’m concerned), physics, chemistry and biology. I was lucky enough to have excellent teachers in all three.

My physics teacher, Mr Williams, was probably close to retirement but he was still an inspirational teacher. His passion was electronics so we spent a lot of time on electricity but he still managed to cover the other aspects of physics. It was his fault that my bedroom was often cluttered with pieces of dismantled electronics.

My chemistry teacher, Mr Vine, was one of those scary, strict teachers (he once threatened to expel me for throwing magnesium powder into a Bunsen burner flame)  but it was the kind of strictness that fostered respect. He also had a slightly inept side which caused at least two classroom evacuations: one when he accidentally dropped a large chunk of sodium down the sink and the other when he made mustard gas in the special gas chamber but forgot to turn on the extraction fan. He taught us well though, and I loved the practical aspect of chemistry but hated the theory side.

My biology teacher was my favourite teacher of all time. His name was Mr Tann. The last I heard he was an assistant head teacher, which seems a shame to me because teachers like that should be teaching, not becoming administrators. His teaching method involved sitting on his desk facing us, next to an overhead projector, scribbling notes and diagrams in many colours on the roll of transparency on the projector. Sounds dull but somehow he managed to make it a fascinating subject, and his practical sessions were always amazing.

Because of Mr Tann I also joined the pet club, a lunchtime club looking after the various animals in and around the biology lab. We looked after rats, hamster, gerbils, locusts, frogs, a piranha, ducks, chickens, rabbits and a hive of bees. It was because of this club, and the biology lessons themselves that I seriously considered becoming a veterinary surgeon. It was only the thought of having to spend another seven years at veterinary college that made me choose the easier option of computer science.

In my last year in senior school, Mr Vine the chemistry teacher took us on a school trip to London, and I discovered the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Sadly I don’t remember who the guy was giving the lectures that year, but I remember thoroughly enjoying the entire lecture we went to. There were explosions and strange chemical reactions and interesting scientific gadgets and gizmos and an animated and passionate speaker.

From that year on it became part of my Christmas tradition to watch those lectures on BBC2. There is a different speaker every year and so it was in 1991 that I got to hear Richard Dawkins for the first time. His series of lectures were, of course, about evolution and I learned a huge amount in those five days. I immediately went out and got a copy of The Blind Watchmaker and followed it up with The Selfish Gene.

I was fascinated by evolutionary theory, and I was equally fascinated by the fact that some people didn’t accept it. I read some of the reasons behind this skepticism and they made no sense to me. I spent some time on the talk.origins newsgroup trying to understand these arguments and eventually trying to persuade these people that they were just plain wrong. A futile endeavour, but at the time an entertaining one.

Since then I’ve moved from newsgroups to blogs, but I still have an interest in evolution and the attempts to create a controversy over it. I followed the Dover School Board saga with mounting dismay and was thrilled with the happy ending. However it was a small victory in an ongoing battle; right now in Florida several counties are trying to introduce creationism into the science classroom and I’m sure that’s not the only state with these problems. Even in the UK there have been rumours of creationists making inroads and I hope the rampant political correctness going on over there doesn’t make that alleged controversy easier to preach.

The Dinner Party

On Saturday night we had 5.5 friends over for dinner. They arrived at around 6:30 but preparations started a few hours earlier.

I leapt (well ok, crawled) out of bed at around 8, grabbed some tea and cereal then headed out to Atwater market for a big pile of veggies and a big hunk of pork shoulder. Sadly it’s almost impossible to get a piece of pork with the skin on around here, but at least it was still on the bone.

Back at home at 10:30 I chucked a bunch of chopped up fennel, carrots and onions in a roasting pan and sat the meat on top of it. Then I rubbed some bashed up fennel seeds and paprika into the meat and put it in the oven on max for 20 minutes before turning it down to 250. There it stayed for the following nine hours.

After a quick lunch of a bacon sandwich I fried up some celery and onions, added some peeled and chopped sweet potatoes and a mix of cumin, coriandor, cardomom, cinnamon and cloves followed a few minutes later by a pint of stock. After 40 minutes of simmering I whizzed it up with my oh so handy hand blender and left it, ready for the coconut milk to be added at the last minute.

The afternoon was spent helping Jen clean the apartment before launching into veggie preparation. I peeled and cubed a few potatoes, four beets and a large onion, halved a few carrots, chopped up a cauliflower and snapped a bunch of asparagus. The potatoes got oil and rosemary treatment. The beets got oil and balsamic treatment. The onion was left naked. The carrots got some oil and the tops of the fennel bulbs. The cauliflower got oil, cumin and coriander and the asparagus just got some oil.

The guests arrived, with wine, the Amazing Race DVD game, bread, smoked salmon and cheese sticks. Drinks were served, despite our oversight of forgetting to buy soft drinks. Everyone got drinks, including the meat which was treated to a bottle of white wine for the final hour of cooking.

Now was the time to add the coconut milk to the soup, heat it up and serve it. It tasted good, but could’ve done with a tad more spice. Luckily Kim had brought bread, because we forgot to get that too.

As the meat came out of the oven, the veggies went in. I transferred the meat to a board and mashed up the veggies it had been sitting on in the pan with the wine and meat juices and a bit of flour to make a sauce.

Everything came to the table at around the right time. The meat could’ve done with another hour or two but it still tasted great. The veggies were also a tiny bit underdone, but lets just call them al dente.

Good wine, good conversation, cake, and a slightly confusing game of the Amazing Race complete with a surrogate Phil finished off the evening nicely.

Homeopathy on the ropes

Some good news from the UK today, apparently NHS trusts are rejecting homeopathy. This is despite people like Prince Charles trying to stick their nose into the debate; maybe when he’s King he can make a royal decree, but until then it’s a downhill slope for homeopathy. Only 37% of NHS primary care trusts still offer homeopathy services and at least 8 major homeopathy contracts have been canceled in the last year.

Homeopaths are saying they will survive, and maybe they will, but only as an insignificant service preying on the weak and gullible.

The Habits Meme

I got tagged by that guy, which means I don’t have to agonize about what to blog about today.

The rules:

  • Link to the person that tagged you.
  • Post the rules on your blog.
  • Share six non-important things/habits/quirks about yourself.
  • Tag six random people at the end of your post by linking to their blogs.
  • Let each random person know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their website.

So here goes:

  1. Ever since Blork blogged about “try to” (correct) and “try and” (horribly wrong) I’ve become slightly obsessive about it to the point of making strangling noises every time Pullman makes the error in his Dark Materials.
  2. I like port. And single malts. But I don’t smoke cigars or read the Financial Times.
  3. I have a scar on my right knee from falling out of my bed onto my etch-a-sketch as a boy. I left the removed stitches in a small plastic vial on a table in a pub garden.
  4. I have an Avenging Unicorn on my desk at work.
  5. When I sleep, my right foot has a mind of its own. My son has inherited this trait. It drives my wife crazy.
  6. I have been strip searched by UK Customs and Excise.

I tag her and him and her and him and double tag her.

The Uncanny Valley

I used to enjoy computer games. Having a small child means time becomes a lot more valuable, and one of the casualties for me was the gaming. I’m still interested in the gaming industry though, so some announcements catch my attention.

One of the problems I always had with games which try to present a reality containing actual humans was that the humans never looked quite right. That lack of rightness had a fundamental psychological effect which made it difficult to believe in the characters you were seeing. This isn’t just a problem in gaming; animated movies have the same problem, which is why the more successful computer animated movies are those that don’t have too many humans, or that make the human characters ‘cartoony’.

For example, Polar Express was a good movie, but it tried too hard to make the human characters look really human, and it didn’t quite work. The animated Tom Hanks just looked slightly wrong.

What I didn’t know until today was that this phenomenon has a name. It’s been called the “uncanny valley”, the point where human likeness is almost, but not quite reached. And apparenty the valley has been bridged. According to the chief honcho at game developer Quantic Dream – “I can officially announce that there is no uncanny valley any more, not in real-time.”.

I’m skeptical until they release a demo, but it has to happen at some point.

Is it possible to be an Christian atheist?

In a recent interview with the BBC, Richard Dawkins defined himself as a “Cultural Christian”. In his terms this means he’s interested in Christian traditions such as Christmas carols but he doesn’t have the underlying belief.

So can you be a Christian atheist? I’m not so sure. It’s all a question of definitions, but in my mind a “Christian” is someone who believe that Jesus Christ was the son of god, and by implication that a god exists. Therefore, cultural or otherwise, I am not a Christian.

Being interested in a particular tradition does not immediately make you part of the belief system behind that tradition. Enjoying Christmas carols doesn’t make me a Christian, it just means I enjoy some of the music that was inspired by Christianity. I’m sure there are Buddhists who enjoy Sarah Maclachlan’s beautiful rendition of Silent Night, but they wouldn’t call themselves Buddhist Christians.

I love Christmas, but I’m not a Christian, Yom Kippur fascinates me but I’m not Jewish, I enjoy the festival of light but I’m not Hindu, I dress my son up at Halloween but I don’t believe in witches.

By calling himself a cultural Christian, Dawkins is effectively redefining the word Christian, or maybe creating a new definition when used in conjunction with the word cultural. Either way, it doesn’t sit quite right with me.

No Regeneration for Verity Lambert

Doctor Who has always been one of my favourite shows. I started watching toward the end of the Pertwee era and my obsession was at its peak during the Tom Baker years (he’s still my favourite Doctor).

I’ve only seen clips of the very early shows, but I was still a little sad to hear that Verity Lambert, the original producer of Doctor Who, had died at the age of 71.

Not only was she the first producer of Dr Who, she was also the first female TV producer for the BBC, and their youngest producer. Since her start in 1963 she’s also produced Minder, which I loved, Rumpole, which I enjoyed, and Jonathon Creek which I also loved. I forgive her for Eldorado.

On the eve of Dr Who’s 44th anniversary we have Verity (and a host of others) to thank for its enduring success.

The Race Ritual

Ridiculing the contestants of the Amazing Race is a lot more fun if you can do it with a group of people, so we’ve started inviting friends over on Sunday nights to enjoy the spectacle of dysfunctional couples taking on bizarre challenges around the world.

For the first episode we ordered pizza and drunk beer and ate maple chocolate buns that she brought.

For episode two I decided I felt like cooking, so I cracked open one of my Jamie Olivers and went to work.

For the main course I seasoned some pork tenderloins, sprinkled them with fennel seeds, browned them, put them in a roasting pan with a sliced up fennel bulb, a handful of rosemary, 8 garlic cloves and half a bottle of white wine. Loosely covered with foil and bunged in a hot oven for an hour.

To go along with that, I boiled some potatoes and peas and mushed them together with a handful of mint leaves to make minty mushy peas.

For dessert we had cream puffs kindly provided by her followed by sliced up pineapple sprinked with sugar bashed up with the leftover mint leaves.

We ate, we drank, we enjoyed a fire, and we laughed at those crazy Racers.

Who is Jeremy Cooperstock?

Jeremy Cooperstock is a very clever man. According to his resume he is:

an associate professor in the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, a member of the Centre for Intelligent Machines, and a founding member of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology at McGill University. He directs the Shared Reality Lab and leads the technical development of the Ultra-Videoconferencing system, for which he was recognized by an award for Most Innovative Use of New Technology from ACM/IEEE Supercomputing and a Distinction Award from the Audio Engineering Society. Cooperstock’s past accomplishments include the Intelligent Classroom, the world’s first Internet streaming demonstrations of Dolby Digital 5.1, uncompressed 12-channel 96kHz/24bit, multichannel DSD audio, and three simultaenous streams of uncompressed high-definition video. Cooperstock is a member of the ACM and chairs the AES Technical Committee on Network Audio Systems.

Wow. Impressive stuff, and it all sounds very exciting, but none of the above is why I like Jeremy Cooperstock. The reason he has earned a place on my prestigious blog is that he publishes “Jeremy and Vinita’s Montreal Restaurant Guide“, an honest, humorous and very useful look at the Montreal restaurant scene. It’s the first place I go to when I want to find out about a particular restaurant, or I’m looking for somewhere new to try.

I only have one request of Mr Cooperstock, if he happens to read this. Please, please add a last updated date so we can see how fresh the information is…

Is An Inconvenient Truth biased?

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

Recently a UK court decided that Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, could be shown in British schools, despite an attempt by a school governor to suppress it on the grounds that it is biased. The movie now has to be preceded by a disclaimer, but I’m guessing the film itself will have more impact on kids than any warning given by a teacher will. That school governor may be calling it a victory, but it’s a very hollow one.

So is the film biased? Well yes, of course it is, but what isn’t? Most of the history I learned in school was biased in some way, as was the religious education I was given. We learned about evolution through natural selection in science without any mention of creationism so I suppose that was biased too. Luckily most of the biases I was faced with were toward the truth (apart from the religious education).

Instead of trying to suppress information like this, schools should be actively promoting critical thinking at all levels, giving the kids the tools they need to take information and process it with care and skepticism instead of just accepting what they’re told.

Yes, An Inconvenient truth contains bias; Yes it contains exaggerations; but the message is clear, and it is an inconvenient truth.

The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing

I’m reposting this article in full as the original author was forced to remove it from his site after legal bullying from the Society of Homeopaths. I’m not the only one to repost it. When will people learn that suppression of information by legal means will never work on the internet?

The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing

by Le Canard Noir

The Society of Homeopaths (SoH) are a shambles and a bad joke. It is now over a year since Sense about Science, Simon Singh and the BBC Newsnight programme exposed how it is common practice for high street homeopaths to tell customers that their magic pills can prevent malaria. The Society of Homeopaths have done diddly-squat to stamp out this dangerous practice apart from issue a few ambiguously weasel-worded press statements.

The SoH has a code of practice, but my feeling is that this is just a smokescreen and is widely flouted and that the Society do not care about this. If this is true, then the code of practice is nothing more than a thin veneer used to give authority and credibility to its deluded members. It does nothing more than fool the public into thinking they are dealing with a regulated professional.

As a quick test, I picked a random homeopath with a web site from the SoH register to see if they flouted a couple of important rules:

48: • Advertising shall not contain claims of superiority. • No advertising may be used which expressly or implicitly claims to cure named diseases.

72: To avoid making claims (whether explicit or implied; orally or in writing) implying cure of any named disease.

The homeopath I picked on is called Julia Wilson and runs a practice from the Leicestershire town of Market Harborough. What I found rather shocked and angered me.

Straight away, we find that Julia M Wilson LCHE, RSHom specialises in asthma and works at a clinic that says,

Many illnesses and disease can be successfully treated using homeopathy, including arthritis, asthma, digestive disorders, emotional and behavioural difficulties, headaches, infertility, skin and sleep problems.

Well, there are a number of named diseases there to start off. She also gives a leaflet that advertises her asthma clinic. The advertising leaflet says,

Conventional medicine is at a loss when it comes to understanding the origin of allergies. … The best that medical research can do is try to keep the symptoms under control. Homeopathy is different, it seeks to address the triggers for asthma and eczema. It is a safe, drug free approach that helps alleviate the flaring of skin and tightening of lungs…

Now, despite the usual homeopathic contradiction of claiming to treat causes not symptoms and then in the next breath saying it can alleviate symptoms, the advert is clearly in breach of the above rule 47 on advertising as it implicitly claims superiority over real medicine and names a disease.

Asthma is estimated to be responsible for 1,500 deaths and 74,000 emergency hospital admissions in the UK each year. It is not a trivial illness that sugar pills ought to be anywhere near. The Cochrane Review says the following about the evidence for asthma and homeopathy,

The review of trials found that the type of homeopathy varied between the studies, that the study designs used in the trials were varied and that no strong evidence existed that usual forms of homeopathy for asthma are effective.

This is not a surprise given that homeopathy is just a ritualised placebo. Hopefully, most parents attending this clinic will have the good sense to go to a real accident and emergency unit in the event of a severe attack and consult their GP about real management of the illness. I would hope that Julia does little harm here.

However, a little more research on her site reveals much more serious concerns. She says on her site that ‘she worked in Kenya teaching homeopathy at a college in Nairobi and supporting graduates to set up their own clinics’. Now, we have seen what homeopaths do in Kenya before. It is not treating a little stress and the odd headache. Free from strong UK legislation, these missionary homeopaths make the boldest claims about the deadliest diseases.

A bit of web research shows where Julia was working (picture above). The Abha Light Foundation is a registered NGO in Kenya. It takes mobile homeopathy clinics through the slums of Nairobi and surrounding villages. Its stated aim is to,

introduce Homeopathy and natural medicines as a method of managing HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria in Kenya.

I must admit, I had to pause for breath after reading that. The clinic sells its own homeopathic remedies for ‘treating’ various lethal diseases. Its MalariaX potion,

is a homeopathic preparation for prevention of malaria and treatment of malaria. Suitable for children. For prevention. Only 1 pill each week before entering, during and after leaving malaria risk areas. For treatment. Take 1 pill every 1-3 hours during a malaria attack.

This is nothing short of being totally outrageous. It is a murderous delusion. David Colquhoun has been writing about this wicked scam recently and it is well worth following his blog on the issue.

Let’s remind ourselves what one of the most senior and respected homeopaths in the UK, Dr Peter Fisher of the London Homeopathic Hospital, has to say on this matter.

there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won’t find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.

Malaria is a huge killer in Kenya. It is the biggest killer of children under five. The problem is so huge that the reintroduction of DDT is considered as a proven way of reducing deaths. Magic sugar pills and water drops will do nothing. Many of the poorest in Kenya cannot afford real anti-malaria medicine, but offering them insane nonsense as a substitute will not help anyone.

Ironically, the WHO has issued a press release today on cheap ways of reducing child and adult mortality due to malaria. Their trials, conducted in Kenya, of using cheap mosquito nets soaked in insecticide have reduced child deaths by 44% over two years. It says that issuing these nets be the ‘immediate priority’ to governments with a malaria problem. No mention of homeopathy. These results were arrived at by careful trials and observation. Science. We now know that nets work. A lifesaving net costs $5. A bottle of useless homeopathic crap costs $4.50. Both are large amounts for a poor Kenyan, but is their life really worth the 50c saving?

I am sure we are going to hear the usual homeopath bleat that this is just a campaign by Big Pharma to discredit unpatentable homeopathic remedies. Are we to add to the conspiracy Big Net manufacturers too?

It amazes me that to add to all the list of ills and injustices that our rich nations impose on the poor of the world, we have to add the widespread export of our bourgeois and lethal healing fantasies. To make a strong point: if we can introduce laws that allow the arrest of sex tourists on their return to the UK, can we not charge people who travel to Africa to indulge their dangerous healing delusions?

At the very least, we could expect the Society of Homeopaths to try to stamp out this wicked practice? Could we?

Happy Anniversary

Four years ago today, my wife and I were married on the stairs of a grand old building, to the sounds of Blue Rodeo, with our friends and family around us. I’m especially glad that my Dad could be a part of that before his illness overcame him.

Since then we’ve spent a fabulous month in New Zealand; we’ve created an amazing baby boy and watched him grow into an even more amazing two year old; we’ve given up being homeowning suburbanites in favour of the relatively carefree and stimulating life of city-dwelling renters; we’ve started new hobbies and abandoned old ones; we’ve spent quality time with our family and friends including a trip to Prince Edward Island and several Xmases filled with excess.

It hasn’t all been sweetness and light though. I lost my father, Jen lost a friend; we battled depression and Aidan’s feeding difficulties; we survived all that as well as all the other changes inherent in bringing a new life into the family. We survived and we grew.

It’s fitting that our anniversary is always so close to Thanksgiving, because I have so much to be thankful for. I’m thankful for four years of married life with Jen as well as the five years of “shacking up” before that. I’m thankful that we have a healthy and ridiculously cute and adorable little boy. I’m thankful that we’re surrounded by supportive family and wonderful friends.

Happy anniversary Jen. I love you.

The Vacation – Part Four

After our week in PEI, it was time to hit the road for the second week. We drove east along the south coast of PEI to Wood Island which is where the ferry to Nova Scotia leaves from. We had reservations for the 1pm ferry, and got there in plenty of time. Dan and Susan were supposed to get the next ferry, but they ended up on ours, giving Aidan a bit of a surprise. We settled down for the 75 minute journey, listening to a newfie guy singing depressing sea shanties. They even depressed Aidan:

Aidan on the boat

Once we arrived in Caribou, Nova Scotia it was time to drive again, heading south to Halifax. After driving around the city for a while looking for a decent hotel, we ended up at the Waverly, an old and unique hotel decorated in the brothel style:

Waverly Hotel

We dumped our stuff and went out wandering. From the drive in I already knew I liked the city, but walking showed me its full charm. It feels cozy, vibrant and cosmopolitan, like a smaller version of Montreal. There are now three Canadian cities I would be very happy living in. I’m looking forward to having a longer vacation there.

Walking around the waterfront we spotted one of Aidan’s favourite TV celebrities, so we had to take advantage of the photo opportunity:

Theodore Tugboat

After that we went for a seafood dinner at Salty’s Restaurant with an old friend of Jen’s before retiring for the evening.

Sadly we had to leave Halifax the next day to embark on the long journey to Maine. The state is not only a shortcut back to Montreal, it’s also a shopping mecca, which is why Jen wanted to go there. We drove back up through Nova Scotia into New Brunswick and through Saint John to the border then down to Bangor, Maine.

The choice of hotels in Bangor is limited to say the least, and because it was getting late we ended up at a very crappy Comfort Inn, which became our base as we spent the next two days exploring the huge mall complex. Jen bought lots of scrapbooking stuff, I bought The Dangerous Book For Boys and Aidan got some clothes and books out of the deal.

Aidan got sick in Maine, and gave the cold to me when we got home, so not the perfect end to a vacation, but the rest of it made it all worthwhile.