Sparing (5, if you’re keeping score). Being an ill-mannered lout.

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I made Santa cry.

That’s not exactly accurate — it wasn’t Santa and he didn’t cry. Except for those trivial details, I’m telling the complete, unvarnished, unembellished truth.

I guess I should start at the beginning.

Curling is a funny game. (I have, of course, said that before but I think I used the word ‘peculiar’, not ‘funny’.)

It’s also a game with a lot of history, with a startling number of kilts and bagpipes (not exactly as shown), with a host of colourful characters, with volumes of traditions and with an elaborate array of rules, customs and etiquette.

Now, I don’t necessarily concern myself with the myriad rules of etiquette of curling (or anything else for that matter) because I’m a simple guy and that’s just too complicated for me to keep track of. I find it’s usually enough just to keep Wheaton’s Law at the back of my mind and go from there.

Some of ‘Da Roolz’ of curling aren’t complicated enough (or contentious enough, really) to bother breaking, of course: Be on time. Don’t interfere with a player when he’s throwing a rock. Try to exemplify the principles of good sportsmanship.

I do make an effort at all of those but sometimes I fall, um, a wee bit short. For example, I try to be on time except when something comes up or I forget. But when I get there I sit on the floor of the dressing room near the door (there’s no bench space left if you cut things a little close) and delay the early birds trying to leave because they have to step over me. And I don’t leap around and try to distract the opposition when they’re shooting (despite what I was taught by a guy with an MBA) but there’s no prohibition to making their eyes bleed. (Just a little, you understand.) And I believe in sportsmanship (the conventional definition of ‘sportsmanship’ is pretty close to Wheaton’s Law, after all) but I confess that the time I helped a team skunk someone last year I enjoyed it more than I probably should have. (In my defense, it wasn’t just Schadenfreude, it was partly payback — their skip had beaten me pretty badly a couple of weeks earlier.)

What this all means is that I tried to be good when a bunch of kids asked me to spare for them. Really I did. (I’m using the noun ‘spare’ as a verb again. Sorry.)

Early in my curling career (not the right word but I kind of like how ‘career’ implies ‘out of control’) I was told (by an engineer — physicists don’t always listen to engineers) that a good spare “throws two, sweeps six and keeps his mouth shut.” So in this game against an iconic figure of joviality (not really; he had a beard, that’s kind of where the resemblance ended) I started out trying to be a Good Spare. I threw two. I swept six. I kept my mouth shut.

The game went pretty well, all things considered. The team of kids (well, they technically weren’t kids, you understand, just a lot younger than I was and comparatively inexperienced curlers) weren’t expected to do all that well against the more skilled, more experienced, more juggernauty Team Santa Guy With A Beard. But you know what? There’s a reason why you play the games. Because things don’t always go the way you expect.

By which I mean that ‘we’ were winning. Not by a lot, you understand. A little.  It was no runaway. We were ahead by a point. Playing six. With.

Let me explain that. ‘Most’ curling games are eight ‘ends‘ so the sixth end is often pivotal. It’s good to have the last rock (‘with’) in the sixth end because if the other team scores in seven, you’ll have last rock back in the eighth and final end. (That’s good.)

On the other hand, a one-point difference in the score that late in the game often indicates that it’s been a fairly evenly matched game. Which means that it could go either way — anything could happen in the last couple of ends. You’d like to score at least two points with last rock to take a three-point lead to seven but you probably don’t want to yolo — if it doesn’t work out it could give the edge to the other team. And that wouldn’t do.

The opposing skip had two main options — he could try to steal (take points without last rock) in six, seven and eight or he could try to ‘force’ us to take a single point in six, try to take two or more in seven and go all out to score in eight to win the game. I’m pretty sure that’s what he decided to do — he played six to apply some pressure but without going overboard — he wanted to make sure we couldn’t score multiple points. He wanted us to take one (1)
point. It’s a valid strategy.

(I didn’t ask him, you understand. You don’t often see a player ask the opposing skip what his Master Plan is for the remainder of the game. And a generic front-end player? Even less likely. A front ender who happens to be just a spare? Inconceivable. I was just paying attention. I do that sometimes.)

So Santa’s the opposing skip who didn’t look anything like a colourful holiday figure Plan appeared to be working — it looked like we would take one point (or give up some, but taking points is almost always better). I won’t say he had us exactly where he wanted us (he was still losing, after all) but he had to be a little bit happy. ‘My’ skip had realized what was happening too; as he contemplated his last shot he seemed resigned to his (our) single point. It wasn’t a bad thing, but it could have been better. He looked a little glum as he talked the situation over with his third. The other skip looked satisfied.

I was standing out at the hog line (five metres away, more or less), leaning on my broom, resting after some powerful almost but not quite adequate sweeping and keeping my mouth shut like a good spare.  The skip called his shot to take a single point and got ready to head down the ice to throw it.


He had missed something. (I think I mentioned that he wasn’t terribly experienced.)

Oh again.

What’s a barely competent spare to do? Etiquette said I should keep my mouth shut. On the other hand, if I spoke up our odds of winning would probably go up. As a spare, though, I didn’t actually care if we won. But I was playing for the underdogs. And it’s nice when underdogs win. What to do?

A dilemma to be sure.

But them I imagined the reaction of the guy who really didn’t look like a soda pop salesman at all.

That clinched it. I walked forward and pointed.

“Hit that one right there and you’ll take four. Minimum.”

I wasn’t disappointed.


Electioneering. Not.

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So I was sitting in the Green Chair of Thinkitude listening to English musicians sing about English things (sort of) when the doorbell rang.

“That’s odd” I thought. “Who could that be? I’m not really expecting anyone. Perhaps it’s an annoying politician. Maybe I’ll go be rude to him.”

So I left my seat and ran (well, not really) to the door so I could behave badly. Perhaps it would be the mediocre ex-mayor. Or the hideous moustache. It’s not that far from the Green Chair to the front door, but I rehearsed what I was going to say on the way.

I opened the door.

There was no politician. In fact, there was no one at all. There was just a small package.

Of doom.

I was going to go for a walk. Now I’m afraid to.



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(Oh no, not again.)

Fans are a little like nails. Well, one kind of nail anyway.

A little.


If you wear the right hat.

By which I mean that the loss, absence or failure of a comparatively minor thing can have unexpected consequences.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself.

At the end of ‘Installing‘ I said

Until they did it to us again the next year.

which sort of implies a sequel to that story. (Typical sequelitis. Just because someone read a sixteen month old post last week doesn’t mean another chapter is called for. Oh well, some sequels don’t suck so maybe this one won’t either. Laugh laugh, joke joke.)

At the end of ‘Installing’ we had a lab (not). All things considered, it was a pretty good lab (if I do say so myself) and saw heavy use for a number of years. (Except for that time it flooded. It was only on the second floor, after all.) It was clear, though, that there was ‘room’ for another one — perhaps one with another dozen or so seats, maybe slightly higher-end ones for some of the (mostly smaller) upper-year courses that had more elaborate computing requirements. Or for training. Or for the odd bit of research, perhaps. (Or for banging one’s head against, but that wasn’t exactly Official.) There wasn’t room in the budget, of course (there seldom is) but there was another computer company that could be approached for swag. (“One of your competitors gave us some cool stuff last year. How about you?”)

As it happens (not) the timing of the request was fortuitous because this particular computer company had just finished a trade-in program; they had offered heavy discounts on new hardware if used (but still new-ish) hardware was traded in. It was a popular program and meant that when the university came calling asking for donations, they were practically awash with potentially useful but used equipment. They could sell it for pennies on the dollar, of course, or they could give it away for free and claim full retail value on their corporate taxes.

Of course ‘newish’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘in good working order’ — if they had the room, a lot of people kept broken hardware around just for situations like this. Trade-in programs often resulted in some truly horrifying gear being dragged out of storerooms and closets.

But we got lucky. Twice. The computer company that has never been explicitly named not only agreed to our proposal and gave us a bunch of stuff but what they gave us was all useful and in working order. (Of course they also wrote some truly ludicrous press releases and made some positively mind-boggling tax claims but corporations do that sort of thing as a matter of course. We were still happy.) They gave use thirteen (not) almost identical systems — eight with pretty good graphics cards, four with darned good ones and one without any at all to use as a server. (No problem — everybody had a spare frame buffer or six lying around, probably in that closet I mentioned.)

What they didn’t send us was storage, because disk drives weren’t part of the trade-in program. So we had fourteen (the ‘server’ had two) 424 megabyte disk drives spread over thirteen (not) machines which had to hold multiple copies of the operating system plus applications and those pesky user files.

Couldn’t be done. (That’s not entirely true. I’m fairly sure it could have been done but it would have made the setup overwhelmingly complex. ‘Overwhelmingly complex’ is a 5-point disad but we didn’t need the points. Or the headaches.)

But we did need storage. (Just like in ‘Installing’ but for a slightly different kind of vendor buttheadedness.) But unlike ‘Installing’ we had a bit of time so we (not actually Ms. Rose and I, but you know what I mean) had time to buy a small pizza box with a (for the day) large disk in it. Lots of space. All in one place. We were set.

First came names. As I’ve mentioned before, naming is important and a lot of people do it wrong. So we looked at the relevant standards document(s), reflected on what we had done the previous year and consulted widely (well, the guy in the next office anyway) before settling on a bunch of cartoon characters. Second came the operating system; I think we chose the one that maximized the number of sub-versions and sub-sub-versions in the version number. And since we had ‘enough’ time and ‘enough’ disk space, no middle-of-the-night epiphanies were required. Then came the apps but again, with time and space there were no significant crises (although we did learn that some software vendors take great pride in ensuring that installing their products is AS DIFFICULT AND TIME-CONSUMING AS POSSIBLE but that’s not an important part of the story).

And at last we reach the actual start of the story.

The school year started. The first pizza-fueled all-nighters (against the rules) happened. The first video games were installed (also against the rules). The bickering over usage and scheduling (guess) approached a crescendo. Thousands of pages of printouts were left on the floor. And one day one of the students came to me and told me that there was a funny noise.

Oh. That wasn’t good. Well, maybe that wasn’t good. I mean, computers make noise — in the case of servers, sometimes quite a lot — but all thirteen (not) of ‘ours’ (including the one being used as a server) were intended for desktop use in an office or lab environment so weren’t particularly noisy. Certainly they weren’t supposed to make funny noises. So I investigated. (It’s wise to confirm things for oneself; sometimes people don’t interpret things in exactly the same way you do. One day, for example, a grad student came to me and told me that his computer was behaving strangely. By this he meant that it had CAUGHT FIRE.)

When I investigated, I found… a funny noise. Well, not that funny, but definitely a noise. A mechanical noise. A loud mechanical noise permeating the entire lab but originating in the server closet. (Not completely unlike…)

“That’s a fan” I concluded. (Sometimes I can see hear the obvious with the best of them.) I opened the closet. A fan on the server. It had to be a fan on the server.

But it wasn’t.

Well it was, of course, because the server was the only thing in the server closet, but it wasn’t on the server per se. It was coming from the not-really-a-pizza-box containing the external disk drive, the one ‘we’ had bought.


Those fans never break. Except that this one had. In particular, one of the blades had snapped off (which never happens). Given the speed of the fan’s rotation, the resulting imbalance resulted in some heavy-duty vibration (the case was threatening to dance across the table it was on) and, yes, a funny noise. Well, not that funny.

Well, I could get it replaced but in the meantime it would be nice to do something about the noise and keep the disk drive from hurling itself to the floor. That was easy — all I had to do was snap off the opposite blade and that would calm (and quiet) things down.

Or not. With a seven-bladed fan there is no opposite blade. So I piled a bunch of books on top of it and went to log the call with the brain trust.

It didn’t go well.

I got a moderately helpful guy at one of the vendor’s call centers that wasn’t in Cape Breton. “But those things never break” he said before asking what group I thought this call should be sent to.

“Storage, I guess” I said. It seemed reasonable to me. So he transferred me to the storage group. The storage group told me two things:

  • Those things never break.
  • This isn’t the right place for this call. We don’t do fans.

“Where should the call go?” I asked. I forget his answer but it was something unexpected. Systems, perhaps. He transferred me.

“Those things never break. And this isn’t the right place for this call.”

Round and round and round. At every step I was told that ‘those things never break’ and ‘let me transfer you to a different group.’ This went on for most of the next two days. (During that time I checked on the pile of books periodically to make sure the disk drive hadn’t hurled itself to its doom.) Finally I got someone who said he could help. After the obligatory preliminaries (“but those things never break”) he said that he could help me. Yay.

Just give me the FRU for that part.

Some background: field service is all about FRUs. A FRU (Field Replaceable Unit) is the part that ‘they’ send you to make your broken thingy non-broken. Often the same part will have multiple identifiers, each assigned by a different group. Sales might give it one number, for example, Service another. You need the part number that the service arm knows this part by. I needed a fan for my not-really-a-pizza-box so he was asking me how he could identify that part and arrange to have it sent to me. FRUs/part numbers are on stickers attached to the part in question. Unfortunately, the fan didn’t have a sticker on it. Nothing in the case had a sticker on it — except for the case itself.

“Umm, I don’t have one.”

That was bad. “That’s bad.” Turns out that he could have sent me an entire enclosure except that I had already made the mistake of telling him (and a number of his co-workers in other groups) that it wasn’t the enclosure that had failed, but only a specific part of it. And he wasn’t allowed to send me ‘more part than I needed.’ Oh. “Perhaps you could look up the part number for the fan?” He tried. Apparently there wasn’t one. Because, you know, they never break.

To be fair, it wasn’t his fault — he was bound by unassailable corporate logic: I was allowed to have any part I needed. I just couldn’t have an enclosure because I didn’t need one and they couldn’t send me a fan because they had no part number for it. Helleresque in its simplicity and finality. And downstairs the damaged fan continued to whine and vibrate.

There appeared to be no way out. But wait! I hadn’t tried the guy named Mike.

Over the years I’ve dealt with service personnel from many of the major players in the computer industry. I’ve dealt with a Brian, a Tim, a Ken, a Dale, a Nancy  and a few others but for some reason a disproportionate number of service personnel have been named ‘Mike.’ My local guy named Mike even married a woman named Mike and they had a daughter named Mike. For reasons I’ve never understood, Mike is an important name in the service industry.

I called Mike. Could he help me with my little fan problem? Of course he could.

It turned out that the solution was to consult a list of FRUs for the not-really-a-pizza-box (a list that was apparently not easy to find) and find a FRU that they were allowed to send me that also contained the fan.

Piece of cake.

So a couple of days later I received a box. It contained a chunk of metal, a couple of SCSI interfaces, some cables, a red LED and… a fan.

So after N phone calls, several service departments, some judicious rule-bending creative reinterpretation of corporate Procedures and no more than a week, things were calm once again.

Until someone walked off with the printer the day after I installed a new toner cartridge in it.


(Fine) Tuning

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Everybody does it. (Despite whatever Cole says, probably not fleas, though.)

I don’t mean fart (although everybody does that too) or pee (ditto) or even aspire to total global domination but rather make decisions and form opinions based on generalized (ie stereotypical) behavior. (When faceless corporations do it it’s called ‘research‘ of course.) I talked about some of the pitfalls of this process after I ate lunch on the road a couple of weeks ago.

After clicking the ‘publish’ button, though, it occurred to me that there have been other times when my little mental shortcuts have failed me.

The first one that sprung to mind happened in the park named after a tank. (It’s just up the street — 500 metres or so.) On a pleasant spring day I wandered up there to listen to a wildly overly attached computer voice (she used to be significantly worse) and attack some frogs at the same time. While I was there a truck pulled up and disgorged a couple of young, fit and (to my eye) mean-looking guys in boots and culturally intimidating apparel. I was nervous.

More than usual, I mean.  There I was, a nerdy-looking guy loitering in a public space while my phone said embarrassingly affectionate things to me. And there they were — the natural predator of nerdy-looking guys everywhere (especially ones caught separated from the herd). It couldn’t end well. I mean, there can be only one possible reason for driving a truck into a park, right?

I started edging toward the exit while regretting my footwear (hard to run in orange sandals) and trying not to attract attention or make eye contact when I saw that their truck was full of geraniums.

Red ones.

Wait, what? There was something wrong with this picture.

While I stood there looking like a slightly dimwitted… something, one of them started pulling weeds while the other one hauled a shovel out of the truck and started digging. And planting geraniums under the sundial.

Gardeners. They were gardeners. That was unexpected. I mean, I’m a gardener (sort of) but I’m a nerdy looking guy of a certain age wearing a 25-year-old T-shirt and sporting multiple gardening-related injuries (damn that chipmunk). They, um, weren’t. Not that all gardeners look like me — I get that — but if you do a google image search for ‘gardener’, well, nerdy-looking guys of a certain age are wildly over-represented. (Heck, the VERY FIRST IMAGE is an arguably nerdy-looking old guy in an ugly hat. At least I usually skip the ugly hats.) There isn’t a scary young dude anywhere in the first nineteen screens of images.


They do nice work, though.

Clearly some fine-tuning was needed.

Soon after, a visit to the Insomniac Capriform Cafe brought this home twice more. My first fine-tuning assignment was handed to me when I was standing in line to order bacon (my usual order since it’s a vegetarian restaurant and all) behind a young lady. Since it was a nice day, she wasn’t wearing much (any?) goose down but rather a very nice summer outfit. (A sundress, although I have no idea what actually constitutes a sundress.) Non-scary shoes. (Women’s footwear tends to frighten me.) And an ankle tattoo.

Now, I don’t get tattoos. (Hardly a surprise — I don’t get a lot of things.) I don’t dislike them or anything, I just don’t understand them. I mean, I get art. (I don’t know much about it but I know what I like.) But I don’t get ‘art that I’ll have to live with every waking minute of every day for the rest of my life.’ That’s a lot of commitment. Even more confusing, you have to commit to it before you even see it. Wow.

But I digress. The young lady in the nice summery outfit had an ankle tattoo. And what do young ladies get tattooed on their ankles? Well, a google image search shows hearts, vines, flowers, stars, dreamcatchers, fairies, jewelry, icons. All very attractive, all very light. Even the barbed wire is kind of cute. (One website calls ankle tattoos ‘visually enchanting’ and ‘subtly flirty.’)

But what did this young lady have tattooed on her ankle? Totally unexpectedly, she had a Great Old One. A horrific, malevolent, tentacled deity. (Probably this one.) Not light. Not particularly summery. Almost certainly not ‘flirty’ or ‘enchanting’. Definitely not cute. It rattled me so much that when it was my turn to order I couldn’t remember how to pronouncefhtagn‘ and just blurted out “bacon!”

Back in my chair I was musing about stereotypes, their strengths, weaknesses and failings when I heard the millenials (two men, two women) in the booth behind me talking. What might they be talking about? The Washington Post, perhaps?

Turns out not so much..

I don’t remember what the young gentlemen were saying but the young ladies were having an animated discussion about sniper rifles.

Apparently I don’t know anything. Even though it’s not Christmas.



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The other day I drove up to Ottawa. Bytown. The nation’s capital. The home of some of the worst-designed roads and highways on the continent. (But that’s only my opinion. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, after all.)

There is some background to this (that you probably don’t care about but I’m going to give it to you anyway). In particular, there are two basic (not) routes between here and there. The first one involves a modern, award-winning (so clearly not designed in Ottawa), high-speed, four-lane-all-the-way route which is fast and generally fairly efficient. It’s also a little boring and can be stressful. (Because it’s modern and efficient, traffic levels are often quite high. So I usually take the other route.)

The other one is a little shorter (roughly 20k — about ten percent) but is not nearly as modern, is a little slower, goes through multiple small communities and is not nearly as straight. (Of course, winding roads plus an insanely overpowered vehicle plus a capriform playing guitar equals fun, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing.)

Anyway, I left a little after 9 in the morning and had… problems. In particular, Highway 15 was Under Construction. It was slow at Joyceville. It was down to one lane at that-place-where-I-almost-had-a-fatal-motorcycle-accident-in-1985. It was completely torn up at Elgin. It was blocked at Crosby. And where the construction had finished, where you might hope to make speedy progress, well, those bits had trucks painting lines. And when that happens on a windy road you have to follow them for miles at a walking pace before the school buses in front of you can get by them. Good thing it was a nice day.

(All things considered, this is actually a good thing. Roads need maintenance, after all. And that road is an old design and practically screams for the odd modern amenity. It’s good to see it happen.)

But all this meant that it was slow going. So slow that I arrived at the midpoint (more or less) of my trip at almost exactly 11.

11:00 is important to the story because that’s when a burger joint along the route (I was going to include a link, but the corporate website got the restaurant location completely wrong. Good going, faceless corporate drones.) opens for lunch. Being a burger restaurant, they wouldn’t do a whole lot of breakfast business but lunch is another matter. And right then lunch seemed like a decent idea. So I stopped.

This is where I digress a bit and talk about stereotypes.

Stereotypes, by themselves, are neither good nor bad. We consciously and unconsciously make assumptions and generalizations as a sort of mental shorthand to help make sense out of a complex world. Of course, having said that, a lot of stereotypes come with, um, let’s just call it ‘baggage‘. Sometimes that baggage is positive. (“Canadians are polite.“) Sometimes it’s negative. (“Canadians love Celine Dion.“) Often it’s neutral. (“Canadians like hockey.”) So when I stopped at a roadside burger joint at opening time I wound up thinking “What kind of people would I expect to be the first ones through the door of a burger joint at opening time?” Several stereotypes popped to mind. And I wasn’t disappointed.

I half expected to see blue-collar working types, there for an early lunch after a long morning of hard work. I was more or less correct — the third vehicle in the parking lot was a pickup truck, full of brush-clearing equipment and two tall, fit-looking guys in chainsaw-resistant pants who practically reeked of testosterone. Check.

I expected to see harried-looking travellers who, having run the gauntlet of road construction and line painting, wanted nothing more than something to eat, something to drink and someplace to pee. Well, there was me. Check. Sort of.

But the first car into the parking lot? The people waiting impatiently at the door for the employee to unlock it? Well, that was two little old ladies.

I wasn’t expecting that.

So I learned three things:

  • I learned that Highway 15 is getting better.
  • I learned the Wi-Fi password for a burger place that is not (whatever Corporate may think) in a field.
  • I learned that some little old ladies can eat more burgers than I can.

Clearly some of my mental stereotypes need a little fine-tuning.