Live from Cincinnati, Making Headway!

Today was a good day. Finally.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finally overcoming a problem that’s kept you up a night, sent you to perhaps the dullest city in mid-eastern America, had you eating mediocre food for a week, and put massive (albeit temporary) dents in your credit cards.

It’s also good to know that I didn’t waste my weekend. The problems, not quite all, but most of them, are gone. All the work that I poured into this handy little laptop, not to mention some great backup from Calgary, solved our quandaries. The site’s working (mostly), and after tomorrow, we’ll be able to say that the site is solid, and I can finally go home.

I met with John today. He’s our (Critical Mass’) account manager for our client. He’s not much older than me — I figure 30, tops. Probably from a business school. But he’s good with clients, and seems pretty good at fighting fires. He was here for his bi-monthly meeting with the client. He knows this city well.

We had an interesting chat after work, over dinner at the Fifth and Vine, an eatery in the corner of the hotel. I gotta tell ya — he’s a great guy. He saw the client in pretty much the same way I do. Not to mention the contractors. I got a lot of positive feedback — he was glad I came. Although not the best candidate, I was good enough to convince some of the contractors that Critical Mass isn’t all pretty front-ends, and that we do know how to solve hard problems.

Whether or not that keeps going is anyone’s guess…

Tomorrow is coding and testing, and then I’m outta here on Thursday. With luck, I’ll be at work Friday morning.

If I’m not, I might start looking for an apartment down here. It’ll certainly be cheaper than these hotels…

Live from Cincinnati, Surviving Memorial Day

I hate this city. And Memorial Day. The two of them combined? Well, let me tell you…

I figured I’d stay in today and get some work done. Fine, no problem. Or so I thought. I got up later than I’d planned (probably because I’d stayed up so late), and so skipped breakfast (which I’ve done almost every day since I got here). I figured that I’d make it up with a nice sub.

So I thought.

In Canada, whenever we have a holiday, it’s a good excuse to go shopping. I’m not kidding — nearly everything that can be open is usually open. There are exceptions, but more often than not, you can at least find a restaurant, or a Subway, to get a meal.

Not in Cincinnati.

It’s locked down tighter than a drum. Even the bars are closed. What’s with that? Since when don’t Americans want to get drunk on a National Holiday? I thought that was a stereotype, for crying out loud!

Yes, I’m annoyed.

After wandering around downtown for about an hour, I found ONE open store or restaurant. Arby’s. I won’t touch Arby’s for all the roast beef in England. Can’t do it. Won’t do it. I hate Arby’s. I’ve eaten there twice, and hated it both times.

So I figured I’d eat at one of the hotel’s restaurants. They closed at 1:50pm. They don’t open again until 5pm. What the heck kind of service is that??

Oh yeah, there’s room service … if you want to pay US$15 for a lousy hamburger. For US$15, I can get a bottomless soft drink, a beer (a wheat beer, not some mega-swill), a huge gourmet hamburger (made to order) with cheese and bacon, fries, and a caesar salad. That’s at the Rock Bottom. I’d just as soon go there … but it’s closed.

So I’m eating a Snickers bar and holding out until 6pm.

I can’t wait to go home.

Live from Cincinnati, Visiting the Cincinnati Museum Center

Today was my day off. It didn’t start that way — I was figuring on getting a lot of work in, but as I went out to scout for lunch, I decided that the day was nice enough that I would take a little walk. My logic says that if I take today off, I can work my keister off for the next 36 hours and still get the job done and get a good night’s sleep.

In theory, at least.

My goal was the Cincinnati Museum Center. It sounded like a really neat place to check out, and it was about the only thing in walking distance that I wanted to see.

I walked up to 9th Street before heading west. Along the way, I passed examples of architecture from just about every period since the mid-to-late 1800s. Gerry would love this city.

The weather was threatening rain, amidst bursts of sunshine. The forecast was for thunderstorms, but I never heard even so much as a slight rumble. Heck, it barely rained in the entire time I was walking about. Which was good, because I had neither an umbrella or a raincoat. Luckily, I didn’t have to go anywhere where I would be horribly out of place showing up soaked.

According to the maps I’d read, all I had to do was cross I-75 on 9th Street, turn onto Gest Road, and walk up to Western Road. Unfortunately, maps seldom match reality. For starters, 9th Street doesn’t actually cross I-75 — 8th Street does. Although 8th Street doesn’t actually connect with the road that crosses I-75. Doesn’t make sense, does it? Well, considering the city has no movie theatres downtown and no stores open past 9pm (the Subway closes at 5pm on weekends!), it fits the pattern.

When you get to the other side of the I-75, you’ll find that Gest doesn’t actually intersect with the road you’re walking on. It’s pseudo-parallel. And Western? I don’t think it meets Gest, either … although I could have just missed it without realizing.

You can see the Cincinnati Museum Center even before you’ve reached the other side of the bridge. It’s that big. It took me about ten minutes to get there from the bridge, and when I got there, I realized that I had another five minutes of having to walk around so I could actually get in. (I came down towards the side, which has a road that goes under the parking lot.)

The Cincinnati Museum Center is also known as Cincinnati Union Station. It was built in 1931 to handle the massive passenger rail traffic that used to run through the city. The station was huge. Its centre is a huge quarter sphere, with the flat side facing the front. The curved portion forms the massive rotunda of the complex. It’s a very dramatic art deco style. Gerry would love this building. So would Stuart, I think.

I like the art deco style. I’d even go so far as to say I’m an art deco revivalist. Maybe it’s because I think the style is elegant, maybe it’s because it’s not concrete. Sometimes I think I long for the era that spawned art deco — the days when rail travel was king, when technology was the newest radio.

Then again, I wouldn’t be able to write these logs as easily…

The museum has four exhibits: The Cincinnati Museum in the south wing, the Natural History Museum in the north wing, the Children’s Museum in the “basement”, and an OmnIMAX theatre. Okay, “exhibits” is the wrong word — but museums sounds a little strange.

Actually, there’s a fifth exhibit — the building itself. If you go on a weekend, you can get a free tour of Cincinnati Union Station — when it was railway station. They take you through the various sections that are still in the semi-original state. I caught a part of it when I was waiting in line for the OmnIMAX movie. More on that later.

After purchasing my ticket, I went into the Cincinnati Museum. I figured that I could get through that before the movie at 4:00. The two wings used to be where vehicular traffic came through. It was a place for taxis and “motor coaches” (buses) to drop people off and pick people up. They arrived at the north wing (now the Natural History wing), drove under the main structure and picked people up on the south wing (now the Cincinnati Museum exhibit). The driveways are still visible, although now covered in grass.

The first thing you notice when entering the Cincinnati Museum is a massive model of 1940s downtown Cincinnati. Some of the buildings are familiar — they still stand today. But many are gone, replaced by more modern (although not necessarily more attractive) buildings. One thing that’s very noticeable is the streetcars (taken out in the 1950s), and the railyard and warehousing district on the waterfront. Today, there are no rails down there, and the only buildings (aside from the highways) are Cinergy Field (home of the Cincinnati Reds) and a new stadium, currently under construction (the future home of the Cincinnati Reds).

I spent about 15 minutes at the model, going through the interactive video, learning more about the city keeping my prisoner. It grew from the copious river traffic that flowed up and down the Ohio River. River travel was so important that the river boat captains wielded strong power over many decisions facing early Cincinnati.

One of those decision was to build a bridge to neighbouring Newport, Kentucky. The captains didn’t like that idea — it would hinder their ability to monopolize freight and passenger traffic. But eventually it was built, although Cincinnati took three more years than its neighbour to grant permission. (Their excuse was potential loss of Cincinnati jobs and an increase in runaway slaves.)

The bridge was designed by John A. Roebling, the same person who designed the Brooklyn Bridge. The John A. Roebling bridge, as it’s now known, is in fact the forefather of the Brooklyn Bridge. The design was later improved for its much more famous descendant.

From there, I walked through a rather large exhibit about Cincinnati’s wartime efforts. They seem really proud of that. A little too proud, if you ask me. Of course, it might just be part of the Memorial Day festivities (there were vets all over the place).

Then it was into ancient Cincinnati, starting from the arrival of Native Americans. One thing I learned early on was that Cincinnati, the order of officers for whom the city obtained its name, comes from Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus was a Roman general, who came from commoner stock. The officers of the Revolutionary War thought it was an appropriate name to give themselves (“Cincinnati” is Latin plural for “Cincinnatus”). So I guess in theory, a person from Cincinnati is a Cincinnatus. Hmm, I wonder…

The exhibit was really quite fascinating. They covered the period of western encroachment into Ohio, from the first explorers, to the founding of Losantiville, the founding of Fort Washington, the Miami Purchase (don’t ask me what that was — the Americans seem obsessed with “purchases”, and the rising of the modern city that I can’t seem to escape.

One of the neater parts of the exhibit was a 3/4 scale model of a steamboat, complete with part of original downtown Cincinnati. The exhibit stopped around the turn of the 20th century.

By that time, I thought I should head up, so I wouldn’t miss the movie. I was about 40 minutes early, so I just camped out around the door. Soon, the tour of Cincinnati Union Station came by. At first, I didn’t know what it was, but I was offered to join. So I did.

The first stop (for me, and also the last) was at the Amtrak station. Yes, there is an actual operating Amtrak station in this museum. Apparently, the rail travel still has to go through here. Kinda neat, eh?

Once upon a time, it used to be the Men’s Waiting Room. (There was also a Women’s Waiting Room.) It featured a lounge, showers (baths for women), smoking room — everything you needed to freshen up (or wait) for your train. Today, the women’s room is gone — it’s now storage, the showers have been taken out and the door removed, and the decor is plastic overlay instead of wood. But it still features the original flooring and art deco lights.

When we exited the room, the line-up for the movie had grown considerably. I opted to not follow the rest, as I wanted a good seat (this is crucial in an IMAX film).

The movie was “Amazon”, and is perhaps one of the better IMAX movies I’ve seen. It tells the story of how two completely different civilizations (Western, and of the many that live in and around the Amazon basin) look to the Amazon with the same purpose in mind — saving lives. It didn’t preach heavily, but it didn’t really have to — the need to preserve the Amazon was quite clear. It was the first IMAX movie I’ve seen that made me queasy. Of course, that might have been due to lack of food.

After lunch, I caved in a bought a disposable camera. I wanted a pictures of the building — it’s too nice not to take pictures. Besides, I want to scan them and put them up for all to see.

Afterwards, I went through the Natural History wing. Not nearly as interesting as the Cincinnati Museum, but then again, I knew most of this. They had a few things that I didn’t expect to see — a mock-up of a cave (similar to Mammoth Cave, about three hours from here), and a mock-up of a glacier (which according to the museum, stopped just short of here during the last ice age).

The animals that lived here during that time were fascinating. I had never seen a skeleton, let alone a recreation, of a giant beaver. About three times the size of a normal beaver, this beastie could probably have taken down entire trees with a single bite. Big, sharp, pointy teeth.

I left around 5:45, heading back towards downtown. This time I went down Ezzard Charles Drive to Central Parkway, before heading south. I went all the way down to 3rd Street, where I walked over to the John A. Roebling bridge. (One of the weird conditions about building the bridge was that it was not allowed to be in line with any existing Cincinnati streets).

I walked towards the bridge until I got to a staircase that allowed me to get down to the Ohio River. From there, I got a good enough angle to take pictures of the bridge. I returned to the bridge to take a picture from its deck.

Returning to Fountain Square, I partook in a late dinner at the Rock Bottom Brewery again. I was relieved to finally get off my feet — I’d been walking for hours, and was quite tired at that point.

Then it was back to my room, and back to work. But at least I got part of a day off.

Live from Cincinnati, Working for the Weekend

Ugh.

It never fails. I get a long weekend, I get lousy weather. I had hoped to go to the Cincinnati Museum today, but the weather kept me indoors. Okay, that sounds like a really stupid statement — if I’m going to a museum, why would I care what the weather’s like?

I want to walk there — I’m a little tired of taxis, and I could use the exercise. But it rained for most of the day. It didn’t clear up until later in the afternoon. A good thing, since I wanted to go out for dinner tonight.

I spent the day working, fixing our client’s website. I watched movies and coded. I’m amazed at how much work I got done watching “Meet Joe Black”. You really can work for huge periods of time and not miss much in that movie. On the opposite view, I didn’t get much done during “The Highlander”.

Importantly, though, I had breakthroughs. I only wish I were actually in the office to put my theories to the test. But I have to wait until Tuesday. Our client doesn’t like having strangers run amok in the offices unescorted.

My first meal in Cincinnati that wasn’t a sub was at the Rock Bottom Brewery, a brew pub in Fountain Square, pretty much right across the street from the Westin. I don’t much like going to places like that on my own, but I didn’t have a lot of choice. Besides, Nancy (my project manager) more or less ordered me to get out for dinner at least one night this weekend.

Tomorrow — more rain. Hence, more work. But Monday’s supposed to be nice. If I get enough done, I’ll make an effort to get out and see what I can find. Besides, I’ll need the air by that point…

A Little Cincinnati History

Another day, another hotel. Owing to some strange reason, there seem to be a lot of people coming to Cincinnati. Can’t really figure out why.

The Omni was completely booked for today when my room was booked on Tuesday. So I moved the next block over to the Westin. Larger room, better bed. Lousier TV selection, though. Oh well, I guess there are trade offs…

I’m definitely here for the long run. Probably won’t be escaping this place until Wednesday at the earliest. We’ve got problems that really have no explanation. Rather annoying, if you ask me. Today was about as effective as Wednesday and Thursday. This weekend is all mine, though. I’m going to rebuild parts of the site that the contractors did a number on. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame them — completely, anyway — they did what they had to do. Unfortunately, they aren’t the best coders in the world when it comes to HTML.

My task this weekend is to correct all the mistakes. Not just theirs, but ours. We (Critical Mass) sent a few files that had a few discrepancies in style. Not a good thing. So I’m going to spend a lot of time going through every file in the site. There’s a few, but luckily, not a lot. If I had to do this for, say, the Mercedes Benz site, I’d be spending the better part of a month doing that.

After work, I took the time to wander through part of downtown Cincinnati. It’s an interesting city, if only for its idiosyncracities. Its architecture is … well … interesting. (Seeing as the city’s “interesting”, I guess that goes hand-in-hand.) The buildings in downtown Cincinnati have more variance in styles than any city I’ve lived in. This is probably because Cincinnati’s been around a while, and gone through a lot of changes.

The town of Losantisville was founded in 1788 on the shores of the Ohio River. Two years later, Northwest Territory Commander General Arthur St. Clair renamed the town Cincinnati, in honour of the Society of Cincinnati, an officers’ organization from the Revolutionary War.

Cincinnati’s location is the nexus of Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. This made it a central location for commerce, which naturally attracted people. The mid-1800s saw Cincinnati’s population grow by 40 percent as a flood newcomers, mostly German immigrants. Steamboat trade and the explosion of the pork-packing industry led to Cincinnati’s role as the “Queen City of the West”. For a time, it was the nation’s sixth largest city and third-largest manufacturing centre.

Today, the industry that built Cincinnati is gone. In its place are Fortune 500 companies and a lot of smaller companies. The massive factories are gone, or subdivided by smaller companies. The downtown core is completely commercial, which explains its death in the evenings (and my boredom).

Because of Cincinnati’s past, it has a very interesting present … at least from an architectural perspective. Most of the buildings downtown are either modern (built within the past 20 years), or from the 1920s to 1940s. There are a few edifices from the 50s, 60s, and 70s — they’re not too hard to spot. (Although the Federal Reserve, built in 1972, is quite nice.) Old buildings are well preserved, and easy to find.

Not easy to find are Cincinnati’s mistakes, and they’ve made a couple biggies. One of the more interesting ones is Cincinnati’s attempt at a subway system. The City made the attempt, starting in the 1920s using leftovers from a canal system. A large portion of the system was completed before the Depression brought the project to a screeching halt. Lack of funds and a general trend towards automobile traffic eventually led the subway into abandonment. The tunnels are used for storage, the half-built stations boarded up. Today, hardly anything exists.

Tomorrow, I intend to check out the Cincinnati Museum, an old art deco railway station converted into a museum. But that’s just part of the day — the rest will be work.

Trapped in Cincinnati!

I’m trapped. Metaphorically speaking, that is.

Today, I effectively did nothing. I spent the day trying to solve problems, but not really accomplishing anything. I started off with a conference call with Critical Mass and a few representatives of our client. We were reviewing the situation I’ve been dealing with since I arrived.

The meeting wasn’t too long, and afterwards I felt that those involved had a clearer picture of the situation. This was important from my perspective, since I wasn’t too sure whether my superiors were wholly confident on sending me down in the first place. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not trying to blow smoke. But considering my lack of progress, I had to make sure that the others understood that I know what I’m doing … sort of.

My major problem is that there’s nothing I can do directly — I have to ask others to do it. And if those others aren’t interested in helping me, well, then I look like a bit of a putz. Not much I can do about it, I’m afraid.

I struggled through the day, doing what I can, until conference call #2 in the afternoon. Same client, different project. This is the one I started on my second day at Critical Mass. It just so happened that I happened to be in Cincinnati when they needed someone. Convenient, non?

Tomorrow’s the start of the long weekend here. It basically means that not much work will be done. And considering the past two days of relative inactivity, there’s no way I’m making it out on Sunday. Not unless all the problems disappear tomorrow, and there’s a chance I can get in on the weekend. I know snowballs that have better chances than that…

After work here is dull without something to do. I’ve spent the past couple of hours watching TV. Luckily for me, I get TBS — I’ve never seen Enter The Dragon all the way through. First time for everything, I guess. After this is Rumble In The Bronx with Jackie Chan. I suppose Cincinnati isn’t so bad.

If you can stay in your hotel room all the time, that is.

Live from Cincinnati, Working at the Client, Seeing a Movie

My alarm went off early this morning. I rose somewhat slowly (I hadn’t quite adjusted to the time zone), but eventually found my way into the shower. That woke me up enough to get dressed, shave, and prepare my notes for this morning.

First stop was breakfast. Continental was served in the spacious (and opulent) dining area on the lobby floor. I found out shortly thereafter that I’d be far better off not eating — at nearly $18, I was quite relieved to know that I could expense it.

I returned quickly to my room to call Corey, my contact at the client site. Corey works for the backend consultant, and would be one of the people I would be working with. I dug out his number and dialled his mobile phone. He asked that I call back — he was apparently still in transit. On the second call, he gave me directions to the building where I’d be wreaking havoc trying to fix a broken system.

I’m working in a small team, all of whom have been slaving away on the installation since February. I feel sorry for them — given the amount of frustration I felt today alone, I can understand why they don’t smile a lot.

It took most of the day before I began to understand what was going on. It wasn’t anything that we (Critical Mass) had done with our code. Nor was it anything that the consultants had done. It was, or at least seemed to be, the server. The software we needed didn’t appear to be correct. Simple HTML codes were being garbled.

So, problem solved and I get to go home, right? Not quite. There’s a lot of things that are still unresolved — most notably the issue of whether or not the server is actually the problem. We don’t know. I came to that conclusion based on results we were getting from the server and my knowledge of how these things (usually) work. The consultants liked my answer, mostly because they were having so many problems, my hypothesis would explain a large part of it. However, I have yet to put it through the scientific process.

After work, I trudged my way back to the hotel. It was hot. It was humid. I’d forgotten what it was like — I’ve been gone from the East for so long, the sudden rise in temperature (and subsequent decrease in comfort) was a little surprising.

What wasn’t surprising was the city. I don’t know what it is, but Cincinnati feels and smells like … well, an American city. It’s weird. It’s the same acrid diesel-infused stench (thankfully not strong) of an industrial city. Which is odd, since Cincinnati isn’t quite as industrial as it used to be.

Returning to my room, I quickly changed into shorts, and proceeded to figure out what I would do. The answer was quick (and somewhat obvious, at least to those who know me) — a movie. Specifically, Mission: Impossible 2. (Critical Mass *had* to send me in opening week…) The hard part was finding a place that actually had the movie.

There are no movie theatres in downtown Cincinnati. I don’t know why. Makes no sense. The nearest theatre is five miles away … straight-line distance. It’s about 10 miles, once you count in all the turns and zigzags. It costs about US$14. So why did I bother? Well, simply put, there ain’t a heck of a lot to do in downtown Cincinnati.

The taxi driver had no idea where the Showcase Cinema was. I only knew that it was off of Route 562. The driver took off in that direction, while I attempted to narrow down the search. The major problem was that we had no real address, and for the second time since I got here, my cell phone didn’t want to dial. (A note for you Clearnet users — it has problems roaming in the States.)

We headed up I-71, looking for the turn-off onto Route 562. The driver’s instinct took over and he left the highway shortly after turning onto Route 562, into a subdivision. We pulled into a BP station, where he quickly got directions. A scarce five minutes later, we arrived at the Showcase Cinemas.

It was worth it, at least in my opinion. Certainly better than watching TV in my suite all night. And yes, the taxi was expensive, but since I ate about US$5 of food today, and will probably do same tomorrow, it’ll all eventually balance out.

I hope…

Live from Cincinnati

It’s been a long day.

It all started about a week ago. One of our clients, whom I’m afraid I cannot mention, had a problem with the website we developed for them. Actually, it wasn’t the client so much as it was our so-called partner in crime.

Critical Mass typically designs the front-end — all the pretty pictures and clicky things — of a website. Typically, someone else does the back-end — all the junk that deals with the ecommerce and database. This isn’t our idea — it’s usually the client’s. We don’t much cotton to that process; it lends to more problems than it’s worth. That’s how I ended up here in Cincinnati.

We provided one of our stunning works of art to the client, who then turned it over to the backend developers (whom, again, I cannot mention). The firm is large, and we assumed technically savvy. We should know better.

They fubared the site. Lemme back up — they tried to merge our site with their backend, and then claimed that our “monkey s–t JavaScript” didn’t work. That’s a load of bally-hoo — we wouldn’t have shipped it if it didn’t work. Then we got the email that drove most of us in Web Development off the deep end…

We develop our sites with the most recent developments in HTML, including JavaScript and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). One of our favourite tricks is to build everything in “layers” — small pieces we can stack on top of each other. It makes the site very flexible. This technique is what was causing the backend consultants grief.

The backend (using a system called Dynamo) wasn’t working with our layers (specifically, a tag called a “DIV”). So they decided that we could no longer develop using DIV tags, and had to build everything with tables. Uhhhhh, no.

We thought this was a load of crock from the moment we first heard it. We knew that our code was solid — we’d built several sites using Dynamo and DIVs, and never had a problem. So we told them that. They didn’t exactly listen. I wrote up a small quasi-manifesto (with some contributions from Adile, my partner in crime in my first project at Critical Mass). I figure that’s how I ended up here.

On Friday, just after lunch, Nancy (the account manager for this particular client) drew me aside and asked if I would go to Cincinnati and clear this mess up. Big responsibility. No, I wasn’t the best choice — there are others in the company who were far better suited to this problem — but I was the best choice of the available people.

Simply put, there were about five people Nancy would have sent. Two were far too tied up on projects to pull off. One was, well, we were worried that they would back down and give into the consultant’s demands to convert the entire site to tables. Another would have been ideal, but would probably get into too many arguments to be truly effective. That left me. Being between projects, and having some experience with Dynamo and DIVs, I got fingered to go.

This morning, I was running around like a madman, trying to tie up as many loose ends as possible. The flight still hadn’t been booked (nor the hotel), I hadn’t packed (owing to a lack of a suitably-sized duffel bag), I needed to set up email forwarding, get files copied to the laptop (which had only just returned from Cincinnati), I had to square away rent (just in case I don’t get back before the beginning of the month), and I had to pay a couple of bills. All that before 11:00.

I left at 11:40 for the airport. The flight was at 2:05 on Northwest Airlines. I would fly from Calgary to Minneapolis/St. Paul, where I’d catch a connecting flight to Cincinnati. (Oh the joys of the airline hub.) I arrived at Calgary airport in sufficient time to check-in and get lunch.

I’ve never flown Northwest before. I don’t like American airlines in general, and I wasn’t too keen on having to take one. But when given no choice, you take what you’re given. That’s why when I found out that my ticket automatically upgraded me to First Class, I didn’t refuse.

I didn’t check any bags — I prefer not to, just so I don’t have to deal with baggage pick-up at the other end. Customs was fun. The game was “Let’s See If We Can Freak Geoff Out”. The questions came fast and hard, and I responded just as quickly. Then I goofed. When asked for the duration of my stay, I said I hoped to return on Sunday. “Hoped.” Bad choice of word. This brought up a whole issue of why I wouldn’t be coming back on Sunday. That escalated into the purpose of my visit, and what exactly was I doing there. I figured it would snowball into “Why can’t an American do this?” — luckily, it didn’t.

The flight was late, by about 30 minutes or so. Soon we were called, and I walked down the gangway to our DC-9. I can’t tell you the last time I’d flown in a DC-9, only that it’s been a very long time. I had 3C, and the adjoining 3A, all to myself. Wow. Big seats. Nice service. Free booze. Too bad I’m trying not to drink (I get dehydrated enough as it is on planes without having alcohol).

It was about three hours to Minneapolis. During the time, we were served lunch — a chicken sandwich. But in First Class, the sandwich is nice and hot, with yummy cheese and grilled peppers. It comes with a nice little salad, and an Italian rolled ice cream ball.

I like First Class.

You also get a GLASS glass for your drink, instead of some goofy plastic cup. It really does make a difference.

We arrived in Minneapolis around 5:45pm (local time). I was supposed to go to Gate 7, where I’d catch my connecting flight at 7:00. So of course, we came in at Gate 64. Figures. I hiked across the airport (and boy, is it a big airport), and found my way to Gate 7. There, I plunked myself down, and continued to teach myself Dynamo. (Not having a manual makes it kinda hard.)

Around 6:30, I began to wonder why Gate 7 didn’t have any sign up for my flight. Gate 8, which was leaving for Green Bay at 7:15, had its sign up before I got there. I started to wonder. So I asked.

Attendant: “Yeah, your flight is leaving from Gate Sev… er, they’ve moved it.”
Me: “Where to?” (I already knew the answer. Murphy was standing right behind me.)
Attendant: “Gate 82.”

I’ll tell you one thing — I’m glad that I started working out (although I’ve been a little lax in the past week or two). By the time I got to Gate 82, I was winded. Of course, I was hiking at a serious pace to get there on time.

Flight 8530 was being operated by Mesaba Airlines. I haven’t heard of ’em, either. Frankly, that worried me, too. But as it turns out, they just operate Northwest’s regional flights. Supposedly, Cincinnati is regional from Minneapolis.

We flew an RJ-45, er, 85 (sorry, techie joke there). I’ve never heard of an RJ-85, I don’t even know who built the silly thing. It looks kind of like a cross between a Harrier Jumpjet and a 747. Very strange. Holds about 69 people. Flies like a kite — sways all over the bloody place.

The meal was another sandwich — turkey, this time. No ice cream, though. We got a gourmet cookie instead. Whee. This time I had a rowmate, a guy from Cisco Systems. We engaged in hearty conversation in the last 20 minutes or so of the flight, recounting our views of Digital Equipment, and how we realized that they were doomed long before Compaq bought ’em out.

I’d forgotten how humid it gets out here (in the East, that is). Calgary is dry — it’s like walking through a lake out here (comparatively speaking, of course). I sweltered the entire way downtown to the Omni Netherlands.

Nathan, who’d only recently returned to Calgary from here, complained that the Omni’s rooms were “small”. I could easily hold a small concert in my room. I hate to know what he thinks “big” is.

Well, I’m off to bed now. I’ve got a long day tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that. It’s going to be a long week…

Chris’ Arrival in Calgary, Living with my Best Friend

My time here in Calgary is finite. I’m not staying here forever. Don’t get me wrong, I like this city — but there’s more to this planet than a single settlement near the foot of the Canadian Rockies.

When I first arrived here in Calgary, most you all received a message from me letting you know what had just happened. One of the replies struck me with a fair bit of interest, partly because at that point I was a little bewildered with what I’d done, and my sensibilities were left behind in Vancouver, and partly because I was feeling quite a bit of exhilaration from being free. It went something like this:

“So. Now you have your life ahead of you. […] Let me extend the very sincere invitation to accompany me to go to Japan. Yes, I am being serious. […] Besides the fact that we are english speaking north americans [sic], we have computer skills too, which adds up to equal a […] load of money for us (and a lot of REALLY good stories to tell our friends). […] If I had to share a 4×4 shoebox with anybody, you would be a good choice.”

This was from my friend Chris, whom I’ve known since the first day in Mr. Gettsinger’s Grade 10 Math class. Stuart, Chris, and I had been mostly inseparable through high school (Stuart and I shared a locker for most of high school). Chris and I have the same birthday (we still haven’t figured out who’s actually the elder, though given the odds, it’s probably Chris — I was born towards the last quarter of the day). We share a mutual love of movies (as do several of our other friends), and a twisted sense of humour.

Now we share an apartment. This is part of our Master Plan. In a little over a year, the two of us are going to Japan. For Chris, this is to satisfy his obsession with all things Japanese. For me, this is to satisfy my curiosity. Sounds like a little much to go through for curiosity, doesn’t it? Don’t blame me — blame my grandmother.

Beatrice Sowrey travelled all around the world, visiting every continent (except Antarctica) before she died in late 1995. She seemed to have a gene that made her want to travel and see things. She passed that gene to my father, who with my mother, has been around quite a lot. That gene is now in my blood. Although I haven’t been to as many places as my predecessors, that doesn’t mean I don’t have the urge.

That’s what Chris being here is all about. This is Phase 1. We’re going to be here for a year, to pay bills and save money. Then we’re off to Japan. Calgary is a convenient location — cheap rent, reasonably good salaries, close proximity to Vancouver (the “Gateway to the Pacific”).

Phase 1 started Saturday, when I got up to watch cartoons. Okay, not right then, but shortly thereafter, when I got down to cleaning the apartment. Top to bottom — vacuumed, swept, mopped, and rearranged. Everything was ready for Chris’ arrival.

His plane landed around 5:45pm, about the time I got to the airport (his flight was early). Stuart and Therese were already there, ready to meet Chris with me. (In my later-than-planned arrival, I ended up calling Stuart on the cell phone trying to make sure I was in the right place, only to end up looking right at him while talking on the cell phone. Doh.)

After picking up his bags, I hauled him to his new home for a while. We would meet up with Therese and Stuart afterwards at Therese’s friend Janine’s, where she was holding a house-warming party for her new abode.

The party consisted of about 10 people, a little over half of whom I knew. It was a somewhat subdued affair, where we all sat around, ate and drank (some more than others). After a while, the younger ones in the crowd (of whom, I’m sorry to say, I ain’t one) spoke up, wanting to go out clubbing.

Janine’s place is not even a block from the club strip on 4th Street. It didn’t take long to find a place. Only that after a few minutes, we began to wonder if we’d all make it in. Chris and I, opting more for comfort than style, were wearing clothes that we suspected the bouncer would reject as not “trendy enough”. (Yeah, I know, this sounds really weird for Calgary … I guess it happens everywhere.)

Stop #2 was at Cherry, a club not far away. Small … really small. Somewhat claustrophobic. We wandered around a little and tried to talk above the “music”. It wasn’t long before most of us disappeared onto the dance floor. Stuart, Therese, and I opted to hang back in the upper decks, watching the crowd below.

That’s when things started to go wrong for me. I started feeling angry. Really angry. To the point where I was ready to beat something (or someone) into a pulp. It was unsettling, to say the least. I couldn’t stop it.

Luckily, I had my psychologist next to me, who promptly tried to help me through it. It didn’t help much. I was a little too unravelled at that moment to be coherent, let alone fully conscious of what was going on. I nearly broke down into tears. I hate mood swings.

The rest of the night, I didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel right until late Sunday, when something finally clicked. I was lying in bed, trying to find the root of my anxieties. All weekend, since Chris arrived, I’d been feeling uptight, nervous, defensive. Like a light going on in the room, I suddenly knew why.

I’m cohabitating again.

All the pain that I’d been accumulating for the past two years was working it’s way back. I was thinking of Chris in the same way I’d thought of Allison. Bad … very, very bad. I actually had to remind myself that Chris is my roommate and one of my best friends. Not someone I had run away from.

I haven’t had a roommate since 1996. At least not one where I could go off and do my own thing, and no-one else cared. So I have some adjustments to make. They’ll come. Realizing what was wrong has certainly helped.

In the meantime, Chris and I are getting ourselves settled — Chris is getting a job, and I’m getting used to having someone else around all the time — and then we’ll start the arduous process of figuring out how the heck to get to the other side of the Pacific.

But we’ve got a year to figure that out.

In the meantime, I’m getting myself ready — I’m preparing for the inevitable culture shock, and getting my website overhauled.

The culture shock is the hard one. I watched “Ghost In The Shell” the other night — it’s a Japanese adult animated movie — a genre often referred to as “anime”. (I say “adult” because it’s not for kids — there’s swearing, violence, and yes, even some nudity. But it’s a good movie — Gene Siskel gave it “thumbs up”.)

Now, it’s not the best way to experience Japan (that’s why we’re going there), but if you let yourself sink into the environment of the movie (which isn’t too hard — there’s a few slow points), you can get even a partial idea of what you’re going to see.

That scared me.

I was actually *frightened*. I have no idea why. Usually these things get me excited. I think it’s because I’m not just going to a different country, I’m going to a different culture, a different language, and an entirely different alphabet. (Yeah, I know that sounds kinda dumb — the Soviet Union had a different alphabet, too, but at least it transferred to the phonetic alphabet without too much difficulty.)

The obvious question is — am I afraid to go to Japan? The answer is “no”. I think it’s just that I’m looking at a culture that, really, I know little about. In order to know a culture, you have to immerse yourself in it. That’s why I’m going. I think it’s the fear of being an outsider (which we’ll be — no amount of preparation will counter that) that gave me the jitters. Hopefully that’s something that will go away with time.

As for my website, well, that’s to be expected (me overhauling again, that is), isn’t it? I’m a ways from releasing it — there’s a lot of work to do before I can put it up. And it’s not all going to be done right away — I’m eventually putting the whole thing in a database, and that’ll take a while before it’s ready. Don’t worry — I’ll let you know when I release it.

In the meantime, you can look at another piece of my work. No, nothing I’ve done for Critical Mass (yet — I have to wait for those sites to be launched), but something I’ve done for a friend: http://www.deskcam.net.

One of my Radical friends created a cool little application that captures images from web-based cameras and puts it on your desktop. You can even make little (or large) movies from it. Very slick little app.

There, that’s my commercial plug for the day. Hmm… maybe I should look for corporate sponsorship…

Softball Tournament in Calgary

This weekend saw the first league tournament of the season. Frankly, I couldn’t quite figure out why we had a tournament so early in the year (we’ve had TWO regular season games so far, both on the same day). But I wasn’t about to turn down the ability to go out and get some more practice.

Goodness knows I need it.

Our first game was Friday evening up in the Northeast at Lester B. Pearson High School (a bare hop-skip-and-jump from my Aunt and Uncle’s), against a team called the Screwballs. Oddly enough, of the three games we played this weekend, theirs is the only one whose name I remember.

We almost had to forfeit due to lack of players. It wasn’t a problem of not enough women, we didn’t have enough guys. Luckily, the rest showed up just as we started the game. It was a chilly evening, so I was quite happy to play right field, where I would be at least somewhat mobile.

The first inning went more-or-less uneventful — no major screwups on our part, no major offensive on their part. The second inning brought my first at bat. Memories of our first two games hung heavily with me. I was dreading another strike out. I hadn’t had the chance to get to a batting cage (and so I’ve found out since then, they ain’t cheap, so I’ll be going sparingly when I actually get around to going). I was, shall we say, apprehensive.

Looking at the selection of bats, I noticed that there was a new bat. I’d tried all the previous three bats, all without success. I figured that I couldn’t possibly do any worse with the new bat.

The first pitch looked good. Figuring that I was going to miss it anyway, I swung. A peculiar feeling vibrated through the bat handle a fraction of a moment later, and I found myself wondering what just happened. I looked up to see a small off-white sphere sailing away from where the bat had just been. The now-familiar “plack!” sound the ball usually made when it landed on the mat was not to be heard. Using my powerful deductive reasoning, I came to the (rather surprising) conclusion that I’d actually hit the ball.

Who ‘da thunk it?

That’s when I heard the voices. “Run!” It wasn’t my team yelling at me — it was the ones in my head. (Relax, I haven’t gone insane. I’ll explain in a moment.) I bolted to first as fast as my legs, which clearly weren’t ready for the sudden motion, could take me. There was no way I was going to make it to second, so I held tight.

Needless to say, I was rather amazed with myself. Not so much that it was a good hit (it passed over the shortstop’s outstretched (with a good jump) glove by mere inches), but that I hit it at all. Little did I know what was happening to me.

(I would hit every single time at bat for the rest of the weekend — only once would I not make it to base. Every time, it was with that bat — a Louisville Slugger. I love that bat.)

The inning ended, sadly, with me stranded on second. Well, I was on my way to third, but the batter was caught out.

Returning to right field, I began to sit back into waiting. Right field, especially in this league, is quiet. Not much happens out there. (Now that I’ve said that, I’ll be inundated with pop flies for the rest of the season.)

The first batter up collided with the ball sort of like a Howitzer … into right field. (He was a lefty, it was half-expected.) Last year, I missed a lot of these shots. For some reason, I was always too short. (Short as in I wasn’t far enough out in the field.) I could see the ball arcing towards me, and all I kept thinking was: “I’m gonna miss this.”

Then I heard the voices.

“Take a couple steps back.”

So I did. Suddenly, I realized that I was under it. I adjusted my footing so that I was right under it. Next thing I knew, the ball was in my glove. I paused a brief moment until the shock wore off. I threw the ball to the second baser, but there was no rush — there were no other runners.

While I waited for the next batter, I stood there trying to figure out what the heck had just happened. I was puzzled beyond belief.

You see, I’d heard the voices before. On last Monday’s games, I kept hearing things like “Run”, “Hold up”, “Bend and scoop”, and “Stab at the ball”. Yet no-one on my team was telling me these things.

At first, I thought it was just me. But standing out there in right field, one gets a fair bit of time to think, reflect, self search, and wonder. In that inning, I had an epiphany. Like being broad-sided with a battleship, I abruptly realized what was happening. I didn’t have (and still don’t have) a mentor on the team. But I don’t need one — I’ve got my mentors from last year. Every word of advice they ever told me is coming back.

It’s sort of like when you make a stew or chili. If you try and eat it right away, it’s okay, but not great. You have to let it sit and let all the flavours blend. During the six-plus months off, all the advice I got starting sinking in. Like someone turning a light on in a dark room, I knew where the voices were coming from.

As you can guess, I was quite happy to figure this out … I was beginning to worry for a while.

Now this hasn’t turned me into Sammy Sosa — but I’ve noticed that I’m playing significantly better than last year. Either that, or the team (and the league) is significantly worse than last year’s…

Despite my apparent improvement, we were unable to defeat our opposing team. However, we lost by only a couple of runs. This, believe it or not, is a very positive thing. It showed that despite only one practice (which I missed) and two games (one of which we one), we weren’t doing too badly.

That didn’t stop us from engaging in another practice. Those of us who weren’t in a rush to take off stuck around for an impromptu ball-catching session. The voices kept telling me what to do (“Dive”, “Step Back”, “Run In”, “LOOK OUT!!”), and I kept catching the balls. It was almost like someone had me on remote control. It was actually kinda creepy.

My alarm went off at 6:00 the following morning. I ignored it until the second alarm went off at 6:30. Because we’d lost the previous night, our first game was at 8:00 at the Deerfoot Athletic Park at Deerfoot and 16th Ave NW.

One look out the window told me what it wasn’t going to be a warm day. It looked cold. There was no reason for me to think that, but it looked cold. Sure enough, a check of the thermometer (on TV) told me that it was cold — it was definitely a morning for sweats.

I arrived at the field not long after Ken, our coach. We found our field, and started to wait for the rest of the team. They slowly started accumulating after a little while, the rest of us shivering in the cold. When the equipment finally arrived, several of us immediately began warming up.

The sun poked into the field about 20 minutes after we started, and as the right fielder, I was in a prime position to take its full warmth. Even then, I was still cold. It wasn’t until after a couple of innings that I was warm enough to even unzip the collar on my sweatshirt.

The game was tough and tight — we were about evenly matched. Except that we were one player short. We need 10 people on a team (the tenth person is a “rover”, someone who can run throughout the outfield, supporting the other fielders). We had only nine. This meant we had to take an automatic out every rotation of the batting order. It was a shortage that would cost us dearly.

Tight as the game was, we came up two runs short. And no, the final score wasn’t 2-0. It was 10-8. That’s how well we played. Hearing voices in my head was becoming a handy thing to have.

Our next game wasn’t until 12:30, so I opted to head downtown and do some work. Not real work, of course, but something for fun. I’m developing a website for a good friend of mine, who has a very cool product. It gets launched next Monday — maybe I’ll let you know! I was a little behind on my work on that, so I figured I’d make use of the downtime and start plugging away.

As I wrote HTML and tweaked images, I could see the bright sunshine outside. I figured our next game would be nice, and I could finally strip down to my shorts. I should know better than that…

When I got back to Deerfoot Athletic Park, the sky was cloudy, the wind blowing harder, and it seemed even colder than in the morning. I was the first to arrive, and I watched as two teams battled for the chance to play again later in the day.

Our team assembled, even with a couple of spares for a change, and prepared to take the field. I took right field, as usual, and started freezing to death. It wasn’t much above zero (as was fully shown when it snowed in the fourth inning).

In fact, it was so cold the voices shivered. Luckily, I was still able to play reasonably well. But even if we had all played in top-notch form, we could not have held back the onslaught. We were outmatched, and it wasn’t by a small margin. Final score: 22-8.

Losing by that much when you play poorly isn’t such a bad loss — you kind of expect it. Losing by that much when you put everything you have into the game is just downright demoralizing.

Tonight, we’re back at the game for another doubleheader. (All our play dates this year are doubleheaders, for some stupid reason.) My shin is still a little stiff from Saturday, but with luck I’ll be able to play.

Just so long as I have the voices to keep me company in right field.