A Decade since the Soviet Union, Birthday of the Observer

10 years.

[[Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Leaving Canada|I can’t believe it has been 10 years.]]

On 30 June 1989, I departed for the first of what would become a string of interesting journeys into the unknown. This was my first trip out of North America, and my first trip as an Observer.

I can’t help but be somewhat reflective upon the arrival of this date. 10 years, no matter who you are, is a long period of time. A lot of things can happen in 10 years … certainly that is true for me.

Don’t worry — I’m not about to bombard you with a list of the things that have happened to me — that would be grounds for Amnesty International to boycott me for human rights violations.

10 years ago, I left Canada as a naive teenager, ready to take on the world without fear, not really knowing what the outside world was like. I learned a few things on that trip, but what surprised me most were the things I learned about myself. 10 years later, I’m still surprising myself, each and every day.

I suppose when I stop being surprised, I’ll stop living…

I’ve seen many changes in myself, even over the past five years. Most of my friends and family have seen these changes. If you don’t think I haven’t changed, just remember what I was like when:

a) I was in high school.
b) You first met me.

(For those of you who have met me within the past two years, you might not have really noticed much. So take my word for it. I’m certain those who have known me a while will back me up.)

The next obvious question is: What’s in store for the next 10 years? Who knows… it could be anything. Always in motion, is the future. It’s hard to see, tough to grasp, nearly impossible to predict. That’s what I find interesting about it — the inability to classify it properly. It scares some people, frustrates others. For me, it’s another challenge to overcome.

Today, the Observer is 10 years old, and is ready to enter his decade of development. With luck, the Observer will keep me young when I start getting old (particularly important, since my birthday comes up in a couple of weeks).

Tomorrow, Allison and I are off to scare the inhabitants of the Okanagan. You’ll hear about it on Monday.

Dealing with Rogers Cable Internet

I hate monopolies. They generally treat the customer like so much belly button lint.

Late last month, Allison and I decided to get Roger’s @ Home (aka “Wave”). For those of you who haven’t heard of it, better crawl out from under the bed — you’ve been down there too long. It’s Internet access through your television cable. It’s fast, it’s always on, and it’s twice the price of dial-up.

The reason we wanted to get the Wave was because Allison had decided to go freelance, and needed a way to do research, but not tie up the phone line with the access. Having the ability to download anything at any time was also a major benefit.

Roger’s had a deal on where you could get your installation free if you called by May 31st. Allison called on that day (she was purchasing it, under the guise of expensing it later) and arranged for installation on June 14th at 11:00am. Fine. No problem.

We’ll skip ahead a couple of weeks, mostly because there’s not really much else to fill the gap (and it would make this message really long).

Roger’s calls me on my cell phone. (We have the cell phone number listed on our voice mail message at home, so it’s always fairly easy to contact us.) They wanted to change the install time from 11:00am to 9:00am. Although Allison would be at home for the technicians to show up, I figured it would be two hours she wouldn’t have to waste waiting.

If we only knew…

Monday morning. I’m running a tad late. Just as I head out the door, the phone rings. It’s the technician. He’s running a little late, but will arrive in 15 minutes. No problem — it’s not too bad.

At this point, I defer to Allison’s narrative on the events. (If I make a mistake, a correction will follow shortly.)

At roughly 9:05, Allison receives a phone call from some guy confirming a Wave installation for 11:30. Allison is understandably confused — it was supposed to be five minutes ago, not 11:30 … even then, it was originally 11:00. The technician gave her the brush off, saying he couldn’t make it before 11:30. Allison made him promise, hope to die, poke a needle in his eye that he’d be there for 11:30. He said: No problem.

At 9:15, a guy shows up at the apartment door (note: he did not buzz into the building), and asked for “Allison” . He didn’t identify himself for some time. Finally, Allison took the risk, opened the door, and only then did the twit say he was there to install the Wave.

I’m telling you: Belly button lint.

He pulls out a box containing the cable modem (pulls the Internet signals from the TV signals), a cable splitter, and about 90 feet of cable (the cable outlet is on the opposite side of the living room). He plugs in the cable splitter, runs the cable, plugs in the modem, waits for some lights to blink, and leaves.

15 minutes work.

I’m in the wrong job…

So you’re probably wondering at this point — what the heck was he there for, anyway? Well, Roger’s has this really inane system of installation: They send a cable technician to install the cable, and get it ready for the PC technician, who comes later.

That’s who Allison now had to wait for. This shining example of the human race called at 11:26 (just four minutes before he was to appear) to inform Allison that he wasn’t going to make it. Needless to say, she was turning an interesting shade of very-pissed-off.

This guy made no apologies about not showing up, about the fact that he had sworn up and down that he’d be there for 11:30, and that Allison had just wasted two hours of her time. He suggested that *we* reschedule.

Um, no.

After firing off a message to Roger’s (which was half-written shortly after the cable technician left), Allison went to work. We figured that we’d actually hear from Roger’s in a short period of time.

Yeah, I know, we’re living in the wrong universe.

By Wednesday, we still hadn’t heard from them. By this time, my resolve was fading, and I was ready to bust a few heads. I called up their customer service department, and calmly explained that their idea of customer service was something akin to going to a restaurant and having to catch, clean, and cook your Catch-of-the-Day.

I was told that I would be called back in “about 30 minutes”.

The following morning, I made it painfully clear to Roger’s that I was not pleased. I was ready to cancel my cable outright. The poor guy who took my call was *very* apologetic, and then put me on hold for 45 minutes.

[Ed. Note: Now that it’s a week later, this fiasco is getting kinda funny.]

Here’s where it gets really stupid. I end up talking to the twit I’d talked to the day before. I choose not to mention that he’d told me that “at the very least”, he was supposed to call me back in “about 30 minutes”. Instead, he asks me if I’m at home. I say “no”, I’m at work. He asks me when I’ll be at home. I say “when I’m done, usually around 5:30-6:00pm PDT”. He says “Oh”.

Oh. As in, “Oh boy, this guy’s about to kill me when I tell him we have to reschedule some time next century.”

Luckily, Allison (who had only just started freelancing) *was* at home. I made mention of it. I was told that “she would be contacted today”. I quickly called Allison to confirm with her. She said it was “okay”. (Sorry, I’m getting a little “quote-happy”.) This was around 1:00pm or so. No-one called Allison until 5:30 or so.

Yeah, really snappy service.

At any rate, I come waltzing in around 6:30pm, with the PC tech practically on my heels. He then spends the next hour and a half tearing his fingers open on our computer (I’ve lost many a limb in that monstrosity). Several bandages and some swearing later, he’s got the thing responding to the modem, and we can surf the ‘net a lot faster than before.

As we talked with the technician, he explained that Roger’s had literally just dumped SHL Systemhouse as their PC technicians, and picked up Microage. The transition hadn’t been really smooth. On Monday alone, they were to do 120 installs. There were only 19 successful ones.

Guess who wasn’t one of them.

In the end, things worked out *reasonably* well. We got the installation for free (a smart move on their part), and we got three free months of use (although that was part of the deal from the beginning anyway — either free installation or free usage). Aside from all the run-around, everything seems to be okay.

At least for now… [Insert ominous-sounding music here.]

Going to Microsoft Meltdown in Seattle

On Monday and Tuesday, I experienced my first real business trip. I probably would be more excited about it than I should be, but we went to Seattle. Whoopee.

Going to Seattle for a business trip is like … well, imagine you could travel from Ottawa to Toronto in three hours on a six lane Interstate highway. (I would compare it to travelling from Toronto to Hamilton, but that’s not fair to Hamilton.)

It didn’t get off to a great start, either. I had to go into the office on Sunday night to finish some work. Allison and I went to the Island Friday night to visit with her family (we hadn’t been over in a couple of months), so I had to leave work unfinished. This was work that I had to take with me to Seattle. It was kind of necessary that I get it done.

We were attending Microsoft Meltdown, which is (for all intents and purposes) Microsoft’s support of the video game industry. Sure, there are companies there that have nothing to do with the industry, but they are few in number.

What we did there was take two of the games we’re developing (our hockey and basketball games) and test them out on several video card manufacturer’s computers. It’s a good way of making sure that our games work properly on different computers, and the video card manufacturers can see what problems their games may have.

Radical Entertainment has a tradition of always leaving a copy of our games with the manufacturers so they can continue testing at their leisure. That’s what I was doing Sunday night — making copies of the games. Sadly, my good friend Murphy decided to drop by that night, so a one hour job soon turned into a five-hour nightmare.

(Just for reference, everything worked just fine, so it was worth the agony.)

I got up a little too late Monday morning (hey, I’d only been asleep for about three and a half hours — I was tired), and was about two minutes late getting downstairs where Neall (one of my co-workers, and our driver to the conference) was waiting.

We picked up Nigel (another co-worker) and Tim (my boss) at Radical, which was a relatively central pick-up location. We then pointed the car south, and headed towards the home of the Space Needle.

Nigel opted to provide the music on our little trip. (Not that we really ever had time to pay attention to it — we spent almost the entire time talking. Natch — *they* spent almost the entire time talking … about cars. I know little by comparison, so opted to listen and be bored for most of the trip.) Referring to Nigel as a “Star Wars Fan” is like saying the Universe is big; he brought along the soundtracks to “A New Hope” (the real name for the original “Star Wars” movie), “Empire Strikes Back”, “Return of the Jedi”, and “The Phantom Menace”. Not exactly what I’d consider road trip music.

Seattle has bad traffic. KOMO 4 News even had a quasi-documentary on it a few months ago. On Monday morning, we figured out what the problem is: No-one wants to carpool.

The I-5 north of Seattle has a carpool lane. Runs right to downtown (it turns into an express lane that literally fires you right through the middle of downtown). It was virtually empty. While the rest of the traffic came to virtual standstills, we were whipping along at 60mph without any worries at all.

We quickly checked into the Sheraton Seattle and hauled our bags to our rooms. I bunked with Nigel, while Neall and Tim shared a room down the hall. My roll was “Swag Sherpa” (more on that in a moment), so I got to carry the bag full of CDs and other junk we would use throughout the course of the day.

We signed ourselves into the conference, and took a chance to use our first three testing slots (we had to sign up to test our games, which is usually an ordeal — getting a chance to sign up early was a bug advantage). We had to wait until 10am to get the rest of the testing slots, so we opted to have breakfast instead.

By the time we finished, the testing slots were open to a free-for-all. Luckily, the general population was still embedded inside the main conference hall, listening to a bunch of people listening to themselves talk. (Yeah, that’s about how interesting the seminars are.) We took the time to get the rest of our slots for Monday. (Tuesday’s slots wouldn’t open until lunch.)

Unfortunately, none of the testing sessions started until after lunch. This meant we still had three hours to kill. So we did the only thing we could … we tortured ourselves with the seminars.

So, imagine that you’re in a large room with about 400 people. The people giving the talks are boring, repetitive, and really not worth listening to. Imagine that you’ve had only three hours of sleep. Suddenly, passing out face first onto your conference notes doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

If only I had done that.

Luckily, Neall, Nigel, and Tim decided that the speeches weren’t worth the air they were being broadcasted through, and we left.

Lunch came not too long later. A fancy chicken breast sandwich with a small cheesecake for dessert. I couldn’t help but wonder — most of the people here are techies, why on Earth would any of them really be interested in this kind of food. Where were the burgers? Where were the fries? At least they had a healthy stock of Coca-Cola and other similar beverages — it would have been a travesty, otherwise.

Testing began at 1:30. This amounted to us going from room to room in the hotel, installing our games on vendor’s computers, testing them out, collecting t-shirts and other various things used to persuade us to develop on specific boards, uninstall the games, and proceed to the next room. All that ended at just after 5pm.

Tim decided he would disappear to visit with family (his brother works for Boeing), while Neall, Nigel, and I opted to go see Star Wars (again).

Before we headed out, I convinced them to go downstairs to the Product Showcase to see what was there. It’s a good thing, too — we saw a product we had never seen before, and wowed the three of us. 3D glasses.

Yeah, okay, maybe 3D glasses ain’t exactly the bee’s knees, but when you consider that these glasses required no specific hardware, worked (theoretically) on any computer, and required no special programming in a game, we were suitably impressed. Not to mention playing “Star Wars: Rogue Squadron” in 3D was pretty slick. We would make a point of stopping by that company the following day.

Dinner was programmer food: Hamburgers, Pogos, onion rings, pretzels, and pop. Basic junk. (It’s what gets a video game programmer through the day.) Then it was off to the movie theatre around the block.

Star Wars wasn’t playing. (As it turned out, the theatres were *really* small, and the sound was pretty lousy.) However, “The Matrix” was. Neither Neall or Nigel had seen the movie, and while I had seen it twice, I didn’t mind seeing it again. Besides, I had nothing else better to do at the time.

As we still had 40 minutes before the movie started, we hopped over to FAO Schwartz to check out their collection of Star Wars toys. (Still no luck in finding a Darth Maul action figure.)

I will admit, I fully expected Neall and Nigel to not like “The Matrix”. They hate everything. It’s their lot in life. They are, by far, the most cynical people I have ever met. It was a surprise to find out that they thought the movie “rocked”. In fact, they went so far as to say that “The Matrix” set a whole new standard for how much a movie can “rock”.

Upon returning to the hotel, Nigel promptly went to bed. It was 9:30. I wasn’t even close to being tired. So I went back out. (I mistakenly thought that Neall went to bed as well, so didn’t bother to see what he was up to.) I wandered about the area around the hotel for a while, and then went for a walk.

It wasn’t long before I stumbled across Seattle’s Monorail. It was the first (commercial) monorail built in the United States, constructed for the 1962 World Expo. It’s still running, and it looks 37 years old. It costs US$2.50 for a round-trip ticket from Westlake Centre (downtown) to Seattle Centre (where the Space Needles resides). The ride takes less than two minutes, and there are only two stations.

Seattle Centre seems to be a bit of an amusement area. It has the Space Needle, the Pacific Science Centre, an IMAX theatre, a lot of amusement rides. From what I can tell, it’s what was left of the 1962 Expo. (Unlike Vancouver, which sold all the prime Expo land for a song, got nailed with the cleanup bill, and now have to pay exorbinant fees to buy an undersized condo there.)

It took me about 10 minutes to realise that nothing was open, and I wasn’t about to fork out US$9 to go up the so-called Space Needle. I headed back to the hotel.

We started off the next morning by taking our bags down to Neall’s car (so we didn’t have to lug them around all day) and proceeded to breakfast. Then it was off to more testing.

Lunch was an adventure. Nigel sensed a disturbance in the Force (like I said, it would be like saying the Universe is big) … corn and salmon chowder. It was followed by a bizarre vegetable crepe-thing. I was beside myself — who in their right mind would feed video game developers this kinda junk?! I mean, really!

After lunch, it was more testing. But we opted not to go the whole afternoon, and bailed after our 2:15 test slot. We wanted to escape Seattle traffic before it set in. We succeeded … only to land in Vancouver traffic. The latter is far worse.

I arrived at home not long after 7pm, a bit tired, fairly hungry, and happy to be home. Hopefully, my next foray into the business trip world will be slightly more interesting…