Enter the Kitten

There are a many things that I am grateful for: a loving family, a good job (even if it does stress me out a lot and keeps me insanely busy), good health, high speed internet connections, snow, sunshine, a warm bed, a hot shower, food on my plate, my friends (though I seem to have fewer these days — my own fault), and my sanity (what little of it that seems to remain, anyway).

Now I have one more thing to add: fuzz therapy.

Not quite a month ago, Asia entered the family. Not the continent … the cat. Asia is now the fourth cat I’ve had in my life. And I hope that she’s here for a long time to come.

My first cat was Sylvester, a black and white domestic short hair (DSH) that I got from my Aunt Ruth. A pregnant stray barn cat wandered into her home (on a farm, of course), and gave birth to a litter of kittens. Smiley, as she became to be known, mothered them for a while before the offspring were given away. I got one of them, and Sylvester Q. Pussycat (as Dad used to call her) was with my family for 18 long years. We had to put her down — or rather, the task fell to Mom — when one day, Sylvester seemed unable to keep living, but hadn’t the strength to die.

Not long afterwards, we inherited my grandmother’s cat — a lovely siamese called Spaz. That’s why I called her, anyway — I was the only one in my family to use that name. Spaz was originally named “Yum Yum”, after a character in the Mikado. Like Sylvester, Spaz was a gift from my Auth Ruth (although Spaz was purebred, not a stray) to keep my grandmother company. Spaz got her name due to her rambunctious nature — she tended to wreak havoc around my grandmother’s house. That led to her being declawed in the front, and led to her calming down a bit.

When Grandma had to move out of her house, my family took Spaz in and she became one of the family. And the neighbourhood terror. To other animals, that is. To people she was, well, the cat’s meow. She loved everyone, and (almost) everyone loved her. But if you were another cat, or a dog, or a raccoon, or a fox, or even a skunk, you were in for some trouble. Spaz took on almost everything. In her years, she lost only twice. One, sadly, to a skunk. (That was really troublesome, considering her affectionate nature.) The second time was to the neighbour’s Jack Russell terrier, a dog that most of the neighbourhood wanted to see as road pizza. Never put a mark on Spaz, but she didn’t go outside again for days.

Spaz’s health would decline in her later years, mostly due to asthma. In the end, I finally [[Putting down my beloved Siamese cat|had to put her down]]. Without question the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. A couple of things have come close since, but nothing else has quite had the same impact.

Cat #3 is Miao Yin, another domestic short hair. Miao Yin was another stray, picked up by my roommate Chris — a man allergic to cats. I might never fully understand Chris’ reasoning for getting a cat, but I certainly didn’t mind. Even if Miao Yin had a tendency to not always use the litter box or meow incessantly when she wanted to be fed. Sadly, it wasn’t the most melodic meow, either. But without question one of the most even-tempered animals I’ve ever known — never bit or scratched anyone. And she was a great lap warmer.

Miao Yin is still alive and kicking, despite a minor bout of diabetes, which she seems to have overcome. Miao Yin is now with Tamara, a successive roommate of mine. A change in my life required that I give Miao Yin away — allergies are a hard thing to overcome, and I didn’t want to cause too many problems. Luckily, Tamara had bonded quite well with Miao Yin, so she has done very well in her new home. I haven’t seen her in almost a year now, but I imagine she’s quite happy.

I had resigned myself to never having a cat again. Which is hard, because I love cats. They’re the perfect pets, in my view. Sure, some people believe their aloof and self-centred. (Obviously, they’ve never hung around with humans.) But I find them absolutely warm and personable. You just need to spend the time to get to know them, and for them to get to know you.

Take Asia, the newest addition. She’s also an ex-stray. She’s a tabby, or at least tabby-like colouring (with white feet, chin, and belly), about a year and a half old. A little under a month ago, she was just another anonymous cat in the SPCA’s system. Temporarily taking up residence in the Pet Cetera in southeast Calgary, she didn’t initially know what to make of this strange person with a beige corduroy jacket and black leather gloves. She was resistent, cautious, but at the same time strangely playful and very interesting.

“Allergies be damned”, I heard — the cat had to come home. And so she did, the next night. She immediately hid behind the furnace. An hour later, she was on the main floor of the house, trying to get an idea of where on Earth she’d managed to end up. And who were these two strangers?

Petting her was inviting a bite and scratch. Asia had no idea what we were doing, and I suspect that whomever had owned Asia before us had mistreated her quite badly. Even a month later, approaching hands cause her to rear back a bit. A quick sniff seems to quell the issue and she’ll usually open up to a good chin or belly scratch. However, she still has her claws, and they’ve since grown back in (they had been heavily worn down, according to the SPCA’s records). They’re sharp, too. Little cuts abound in places, but Asia’s slowly learning that claws aren’t acceptable.

Especially on the furniture.

Allergies are still an issue however. The day after Asia arrived at home, colds struck. How’s that for pathetic irony, eh? It was almost impossible to tell what was cold and what was allergy. Asia didn’t seem to mind or care — she was still getting attention, food, and a warm place to stretch out. The colds subsided and left, a new filter inserted into the furnace, and an ionic cleaner in the bedroom seemed to improve matters as well. An old bedspring also helped keep Asia out of the bedroom … at least until she learned how to jump on top of it. For now, a large crumpled sheet of aluminum foil seems to keep her at bay. (And before you ask, no, there is no door to the bedroom. Open concept is neat until you need to keep a cat under control.)

So now I have some fuzz therapy to help me out. When I’m feeling stressed out or blue, I go find Asia. Unless she’s having her daily freak out (I still do not understand why cats do that), she never seems to mind a good stroke or two. And her purr goes a long way to clearing the cloud of doubt.

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Reform the US Patent Office!

The definition of “patent”, courtesy of the US Patent and Trademark Office:

A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Generally, the term of a new patent is 20 years from the date on which the application for the patent was filed in the United States or, in special cases, from the date an earlier related application was filed, subject to the payment of maintenance fees. U.S. patent grants are effective only within the United States, U.S. territories, and U.S. possessions. Under certain circumstances, patent term extensions or adjustments may be available.

The right conferred by the patent grant is, in the language of the statute and of the grant itself, “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States or “importing” the invention into the United States. What is granted is not the right to make, use, offer for sale, sell or import, but the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the invention. Once a patent is issued, the patentee must enforce the patent without aid of the USPTO.

Yes, there’s quite a bit more to that definition, but this is as good a place as any to start. Mostly because this is the key point at which the problems seem to start: “the right to exclude others from [doing anything with] the invention”. Basically, suing people to ensure that you either get royalties or stop them from doing anything with the invention in question.

And more importantly it is the term “invention” that I have issue with.

Lately, it seems that there are a number of companies quite content with registering patents for “inventions” that are little more than an extension of logical progression — something that was bound to come in just a matter of time. But due to the way that American Capitalism works, there is money to be made … even if you don’t have to lift a finger to get it.

A few people were applauding the USPTO’s decision to grant a patent on the techniques used to implement rich media interfaces on the internet (and pretty much anything that would connect to the internet, including set-top boxes, wireless devices, and the odd refrigerator). This was filed by Balthaser Online, a one-man operation who happened to think of the idea (filing the application for the patent, that is) before anyone else.

Sound familiar? It should — a similar sort of broad-ranging patent was filed by Eolas Inc. to handle the method in which plug-ins were included in webpages. That’s a little thorn in the side of the internet that’s raged for years, now, with pipsqueak Eolas taking on Microsoft Corporation for over US$520 million in compensation.

Compensation for what? For having an idea? Having just an idea? Where the hell is the value in that? Can anyone tell me why on Earth someone should be awarded over half a billion dollars for an idea? Especially if you didn’t sell it to someone first?

Both Eolas and Balthaser have something in common: they beat someone else to the punch. They filed patents for things that others were thinking of (or would think of shortly thereafter) — things that others would expand upon and turn into industry standards and solid techniques. In the case of Eolas, the basic idea of including a plug-in was defined by the World Wide Web Consortium and became the de facto way to include items other than HTML into a given webpage. For Balthaser, they’ve successfully patented a method for using rich media to present an interface. This includes the use of Flash, Flash, AJAX, and XAML. This affects pretty much every aspect of the much lauded Web 2.0.

But where is the innovation? Sure, they beat everyone else to the punch, but what did those companies do to push their “inventions” further? From what we can see, all they did was sit around and wait for the USPTO to approve their patents so they could then turn around and license their patent to those who wanted to use the same ideas, or sue those who refused to cough up the dough.

I side with the companies trying to defend themselves against such ridiculousness — yes, even Microsoft. I want them to win their little spat against Eolas. Tell me that this makes any sense at all. Did Eolas strike out at every browser maker who has ever used a plug-in? They could have gone after Apple and AOL (owners of Safari and Netscape, respectively). Nope. Just Microsoft. Why? Money, what other possible reason could their be? This is the kind of insipidness that comes as a result of allowing patents on broad concepts that are in development in an industry in several places, or already formed and one person happens to patent it first.

Patents weren’t intended for “armchair inventors” — they were meant for people who wanted to actually do something with it. Look at the case of Charles Goodyear, the man credited with inventing (and patenting!) vulcanized rubber. This is a guy who wanted to make a difference, someone who had a vision and was willing to follow that vision to the bitter end. And it was a very hard trail — he and his family lived in poverty (Goodyear himself was in and out of debtor’s prison) for most of their lives because of Goodyear’s obsession with creating vulcanized rubber and trying to market his invention. The poor living conditions led to the death of his son.

Goodyear defended himself in court against a wealthy (and unscrupulous) businessman, Horace Day, who had purchased several of Goodyear’s first run with the invention — shoes — to figure out how it was made so he could duplicate the process. The case, known both as “Goodyear vs. Day” and the “India Rubber Case” is well-known in patent legal precendent for defending an inventor’s rights to profit from their hard work.

That’s the key point of patents — they’re a defensive measure, not meant to be a weapon against others. That’s what most of these new patents seem to be — an effort to scoop cash because someone had the wherewithal to patent a technique that was already well on the way to development, and not even something they were responsible for coming up with.

Let’s look at the most recent (potential) offender, Balthaser Online. I loathe to immediately label them as the bad guy, but with the awarded patent, it’s not looking good. Why? Because Neil Balthaser, the former VP of Strategy for Macromedia, filed a patent in 2001 for “Methods, Systems and Processes for the Design and Creation of Rich-Media Applications via the Internet”. This was filed when Flash was already in its third version, so it was hardly a new idea. Balthaser just happened to be the first guy in the door.

But maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe I’ve been too jaded with the silliness of the Eolas vs. Microsoft lawsuit or the utter nonsense of the NTP vs. RIM lawsuit (I mean, really guys — are you so callous about money that you’re willing to cripple communications for hundreds of thousands of people, bringing chaos to the upper echelons of Corporate America?) that I can’t see anything but ill intent. It’s possible that Balthaser got the patent to ensure that no-one else did, and will open that patent to everyone thus ensuring that all the developments in the internet since its filing will continue as they should, without impedence or fear that the financial penalty for innovation won’t prove efforts were for naught.

Having looked at American Capitalism lately, though, I’m not willing to hold my breath.

The short of this is that the USPTO does not represent the internet. Developments take place in parallel (and often in concert), building on the steps set down by others often not seen until years later (witness the sudden appearance of AJAX, despite the introduction of the core method — XMLHttpRequest() — years earlier by Microsoft). Patents filed by those keen only on reaping the rewards of others’ labour serve only to cause problems and financial hardships for those trying to honestly make a difference (and a few bucks, of course).

The USPTO should be restricted to allowing patents where there is proven effort to invent the concept, and continue that innovation to further the idea, market the idea, and do what the giants of the past did — such as Goodyear — and earn the right to own that patent. Not just be the first person to put their hand up.

If the change doesn’t come, maybe I’ll file a patent for stupidity, so I can sue all the idiots in the world.

The day after the CMMYs

Critical Mass works hard. We know that from all the various nervous ticks we’ve developed over the years from working too hard.

So you can imagine that when we play, we make up for the difference.

There are two annual events in the Critical Mass calendar. The first is the Summer Event, which has been a staple since I started back in 2000. The other, a more recent edition, is the CMMYs (pronounced “see-emmies”). It’s our own internal awards show, showcasing the work we’ve done over the last year. It’s a combination of the Emmys, the Oscars, the MTV Movie Awards, and a car crash. Namely, that it runs longer than you think, but you just can’t stop watching it.

During CMMY week, Critical Mass is a madhouse. Mostly because we import all of our offices to Calgary and still try to function. The Calgary office surprisingly can still accomodate all those people — well over 300 of them — and not have to share desks. Meeting rooms, on the other hand, are in much shorter supply. And that’s a problem when meetings become a priority because everyone’s here. And because it’s a prime time for 2006 planning.

Needless to say, I’m glad that this week is nearly over — the meetings have been murder, and I’ve not gotten nearly enough done. Next week, things will return to normal. I hope.

The events of this week have been varied, but interesting. People started arriving Monday morning from the Toronto office — I wasn’t expecting people until Tuesday at the earliest. The Bistro was quite full at breakfast. Faces I’d not seen in quite some time (partly due to me leaving the Mercedes-Benz account) were a happy sight. And a lot of faces that I’ve never seen before.

I used to pride myself on knowing everyone in the company. But there are just too many of them now. I think I’ll be lucky to know even half of Critical Mass. Half of that number I might know personally. It might be a small world, but there are lot of people in it.

Tuesday was the Town Hall and Department meetings. The winter Town Hall is often … well, dull. Not because it’s all financial and organizational material. Not just because. It’s mostly because it’s not played up as much as the summer Town Hall, which has been the source of some absolute hilarity at the complete expense of anything business-related. So the winter session is a little harder to sit through.

The Department meeting was also a little hard to sit through, despite the lubrication of having beer readily available. The major issue was how the Technology department will work at Critical Mass. We’ve reorganized a bit, and we’re now part of the Strategy group. This, I like. I like the idea that Planning will come before Design, and that Technology is a part of that planning. The trouble is, that’s not the way that Critical Mass has worked in the past — Technology has historically come after the Design phase.

It’s not that we’re objected to change, only that we don’t understand yet how it will all work. But that’s the thing — no-one has spelled it out in detail. And no-one will — you can’t, there’s just too many things to state to make it an effective piece of communication. But it’s the direction that matters, and it’s something we need to pay closer attention to. Agility and strategic positioning is what it’s all about.

Wednesday was all about meetings of various kinds. Two of particular importance to me, however, were the Web Development meetings. First was a meeting of the Senior web developers. This is the steering group, the ones who set the best practices in the company, and guide the rest of the team in our daily work. For the last few weeks, we’ve been establishing our own internal standards. We’ve had the standards embedded in our culture for a long time, but never actually written down. Now that we have more than one production office, we need to get our act together.

The topic of this meeting? It was important to have this specific meeting, given that all of our seniors were in the same place (except Colin, who got sucked away to a client visit in California). This was the sort of discussion that required everyone present. It’s a religious debate amongst developers, one that widely divides camps, and creates shouting matches. (Which is also why I bought beer, so we could keep it somewhat calm.)

Tabs vs. spaces.

For those of you in the programming field, you know what I mean. For those of you who have no idea what the big deal is, well, it’s hard to explain the passion that abounded about which standard we would use. Personally, I didn’t care. Or I didn’t until that meeting. As the arguments went along, I fell into line with Dennis’ well-crafted argument to use tabs. Torin’s defence of spaces never really quite caught on for me, though it was also well-handled. Tabs won out.

The next meeting was not as successful as I would have liked: the Web Dev Bru Ha Ha. Every so often, we try to get the entire Web Dev team out for a drink after work. It’s a chance to mingle and get to know one another. But despite having the entire team in the city, we got barely half of the team out. Sadly, or fortunately (depending on your view), it just means we’ll have to keep trying until we get it right.

Thursday, yesterday, was the big day. Everyone was anticipating the big night. And we knew from the start that this was going to be something interesting, when spying the Brokeback Mountain poster taped to one of the meeting room walls … and then realizing that it said “Brettback Evan” and featured the faces of two of our IT wizards, Brett and Evan in place of Heath and Jake.

One final meeting was the BU meeting — the Business Unit that we belong to. Our BUs are colour-coded, and contain one or more accounts depending on their size. Until a week or so ago, I was part of the Orange BU. That was until we found out that our newest client — for whom I’m the Technology Director — was a lot larger than we’d thought. Now I’m in the Gold BU. We’re still small, but we’ll be growing this year. But due to our compact size, we could easily squeeze into the upper floor of the Rose and Crown. We were back at the office just before 17:00 to get ready for the CMMYs.

The CMMYs are a time for Critical Mass to play it up a bit. It’s also a time for us to look more presentable than usual. In fact, there’s even a dress code: No jeans, no running shoes, no hats. That’s it, so it leaves a lot of options open — no matter what your sense of taste is. Last year, it brought out guys in the stereotypically gaudy 1970’s powder blue tuxedos complete with the ruffled shirts. It’s a chance for Jerry, our Chairman, to break out his very dapper tuxedo. It’s a chance for people to dress up in ways they normally wouldn’t, and enjoy the change.

Deciding that I’ve worn my wedding suit too often (it’s becoming a pattern), I opted for something a little different. I wore my kilt.

Actually, it was my dad’s kilt. Custom-made in Scotland. It’s a heavy little bugger, but it looks great. The last time I’d worn it was at Cathy’s wedding. Back then, I didn’t like the kilt so much. It’s a winter-weight kilt, which means you bake in the middle of the summer. I was also a few pounds heavier, meaning I barely fit in it.

I’m thinner now (thanks to Arthur), so wearing it isn’t such a burden. And being winter, it’s more comfortable. Well, almost. It figures that the first actual cold day since winter began in Calgary is the day I’m going to not wear pants. It was -35 with the wind chill.

We all arrived at the Calgary Hyatt for 18:00 — the start of cocktail time. When Neil spotted me walking into the coat check area, he spied my hairy legs poking out from under my Morrison dress tartan, and immediately declared: “I don’t wanna know.”

He was referring, of course, to the oft-mentioned fact: what do Scotsmen wear beneath the kilt? You’d be surprised how often I was asked that question. But only one person dared check: John. The sheep-shagging haggis stuffer was the only one bold enough to continue hauling it up. I don’t think he ever got a good look, thankfully! John and I have a long history, though — he was my account manager on my first project. I met him for the first time when I’d had to be sent down to Cincinnati to fix a problem on another project (see [[Live from Cincinnati]]).

Dinner was served promptly at 19:00 … I think. I’d officially lost track of time by then. I was at the back of the room with my fellow technical cohorts, most of them Flash developers. The rest were web developers. I felt like the old fart at the table, and not just the fact that I’m older than the rest of them. I’ve been at Critical Mass nearly six years — only Natalia came close to my tenure. I’ve been at Critical Mass long enough to be able to remember the events coming up on the projection screen.

(Incidentally, to the Critical Mass historian: the first town hall that took place at the Danish Community Centre followed by a visit to Ceili’s took place in 2000, not 1999 as it appeared. I know — I was there. I have witnesses to that effect.)

Dinner was surprisingly good. I was worried that our meals would be … not terribly satisfying due to the banquet-style serving. But the Hyatt did an outstanding job of my steak. Certainly something worth praising, I think.

Following dinner, we began the awards show. Every year, we strive to have someone worthy of being on stage, someone who can captivate the audience, while simultaneously being able to offer witty, sometimes slanderous quips. Who else but the beautiful Arif?

The awards go for most risky project, ones with the most changes before it was complete, best integration, and so forth. Mixed in between the awards were short clips of video promoting our CMVPs, one of whom would be chosen as CMVP of the year. It’s a big honour … and a big cheque. I’d filmed some stuff for Torin’s segment. The best part was seeing how the video was edited into it’s final form. Quotes were intentionally taken out of reference, things spliced in such a way as to tell a story that no one person could tell.

Also thrown in were two other special events. The first was a tribute to Jerry, our new Chairman of the Board. Jerry used to be the CEO, but we had a restructuring this year that put Jerry to the head of the heap. I’ve gotten to know Jerry a bit over the years, though I know most of my knowledge is courtesy of stories told by others. Though Jerry does tell a number of good ones, himself.

The second was a tribute to employee #001. It was introduced by Darren, who believed himself to be #001. As the story goes, though, he found out that he wasn’t in fact #001. So he renumbered himself to #000. The one bearing #001 is Randy — our first financial wizard. Randy doesn’t say much, but he certainly did this time. And Randy didn’t allow himself to stay alone, asking up the other original few who are still with Critical Mass. It was time to celebrate one more thing:

iPods.

No, wait, sorry — that was afterwards. It was to celebrate 10 Years of Critical Mass. Ten years ago, Ted Hellard and Michel Clairo started a little CD-ROM firm. Today, we’re the top interactive agency in North America. A few people working out of a living room turned into a seven-office marketing demon with over 300 employees. I’ve been here over half of its life, and I think I’m going to be here for a long time to come … I hope.

As a present to everyone who had helped Critical Mass get to where we are, everyone was given a gift: iPods. 30GB versions to the permanent employees, Shuffles to the term employees. I’ve already got a Nano, so this was icing on the cake. On the back is an inscription: “CRITICAL MASS Ten years and counting”.

Brett won for CMVP of the year — deservedly so. The presentation was accompanied by the trailer for Brettback Evan, a parody of Brokeback Mountain. Every year, every meeting like this, someone creates a classic Critical Mass video. This was the CMMYs’ contribution to posterity. It joins the class of “Arif Striptease”, “Dirty J”, “Luke’s Workout”, and “The Office Enforcer”. One day, I’ll need to get a DVD of all of these.

We never all made it to Ducky’s. That had been the plan. But in typical awards fashion, we didn’t wrap up the show until nearly midnight. By then, it was clear we were better off staying at the Hyatt. I held out until about 2:00 before finally weaving my way home. I’m not able to handle the drive as well as I used to — I must be getting old.

This morning was a little rough. My head hurt. Tylenol, an extra-cheesy omelette, a -25 degree walk to the bus stop to get to work (I left my car at the office so I wouldn’t drive home), and four mugs of jasmine tea corrected the queasiness.

My throat hurts, and my voice is a good octave lower. That’s mostly due to yelling. As anyone who’s been around me after two beers and in a noisy environment knows, my ability to control the volume of my voice goes right out the window. I’m sure I deafened Ryan when I was encouraging him to be passionate about something he wants to do.

Gary showed up at work in the same clothes as last night. He doesn’t fully remember everything. He wasn’t even sure if he took pictures (he did) or what happened to his jacket. People are calling in sick. Those here aren’t moving with the same vigour as usual. Pictures from last night look … interesting.

God, I love this company.

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Why no-one should care that Google censored itself in China

Today, 14 February 2006, is being touted as the day people are to “break-up” with Google (also here). They’re to sever their relationship, their ties, their love for what is still the most dominant search engine on the internet. It might be losing its top place due to a drop in its relevance (word to Google’s engineers: you guys gotta tighten that baby up — MSN is beginning to beat you out), but its popularity has never been stronger.

Which is part of the reason why people are trying to punish Google for censoring itself in China. It’s a backlash against the Big G to try and remind them of their “do no evil” mantra.

It’s about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.

In recorded history, the actions of a group of people have instigated (either directly or as an end result of continued actions) a change in behaviour of an entity, be it the church, a government, or a company. The belief (no matter how ill-thought) is that by removing the traffic from Google’s engines, people will somehow force Google into removing the censorship in China, allowing the poor, huddled masses there to see all the material currently forbidden by the Chinese government.

The problem isn’t that Google is censoring — it’s that people believe that Google’s moral direction somehow overrides the legality of operating in another country.

Yes, Google is an American company. It follows all the laws and guidelines set within the United States of America. What most people seem to forget is that just because a company is based there doesn’t mean that it can behave the same way in every other country on the planet.

The traditional Corporation (we’ll ignore that the internet exists for a moment) starts in Country A, defined by and operating under the laws that govern that nation. When the Corporation wants to do business in Country B, it can either do so across borders (when it is convenient and relatively painless), or it opens a subsidiary to acclimatize to the different conditions. Every country has a specific set of laws that are almost invariably different (not necessarily hostile towards) to the laws in the originating country. The subsidiary allows the Corporation to function internally with minimal changes, and having the subsidiary deal with the legal specifics.

Even between the United States and Canada, there are legal differences. Although almost economically transparent to one another, there are sufficient differences to require significant treaties to allow the exchange of goods and services (witness the US/Canada Auto Pact or NAFTA). The laws that companies operate within are also different, which leads to having specific subsidiaries in Canada. Even companies like Dell and Microsoft — and yes, even Google — have Canadian-specific offices to handle Canadian-specific legal requirements.

When Google wants to do business directly within a country, it needs to open an office. This is particularly important when that country is viewed as being a strong source of revenue. (Yes, folks, this is all due to money. “Do no evil” or not, money is the root of all evil and money rules everything.) Such is the case with China — it is the next great revenue source for the search engines. Google just happened to be the first to knock on the door.

China has very specific laws when it comes to information. Such is the reality of living within the confines of a oligarchy-ruled “communist” nation. You control the masses (and lest we forget that China has over 1.6 billion people) by controlling information. China allows a great deal of information through its borders (having been there, I’ve seen what is allowed) and offers its people a great deal of freedom.

But to ensure that its society remains harmonious, there are aspects that are not allowed. Anything to do with democracy, freedom of speech, or anything that might incite revolt against the ruling party is viewed to be particularly dangerous. China has a history of particularly violent civil wars — even if the ruling party weren’t trying to save their collective butts, it would be a wise policy to allow gradual change rather than end up with an internal conflict on the order of World War I.

This isn’t about China’s policies — this is about others having to recognize that they exist. Google has, much to the chagrin of others. Google has done what a lot of people now view as a violation of Google’s moral perogative: censored itself. It has done “evil”.

There is an interesting allegory to this. There once was a garden. And in this garden grew a tree. The inhabitants of this garden were told never to eat from the tree. Yet they were inticed by a serpent — a representation of evil — to ignore what they were told, and eat the delicious fruit, and ultimately learned the horrible truth.

The story of Adam and Eve is often used as a prime example of evil’s profits. And yet, if we consider Google to be the tree, for it does contain all the collected knowledge … who is the snake? It’s not China, for they want that knowledge to remain in the tree, away from those who would eat the tree’s fruit. Eating that apple is considered evil.

I’m sure that’s going to stir a few objections — how dare I consider the allegory to be even remotely equivalent to a company that chooses to side with an “evil” country! Like many things, the concept of “evil” is highly subjective. We westerners look down on other nations that do not provide the same notions of freedom. We do not see the same societal constructs that have existed elsewhere for centuries. We consider our enlightenment to be the only true way.

If the recent weeks of Muhammad cartoons have not yet taught westerners that absolute belief in our own superiority is a supreme fallacy, I don’t know what will.

Every company, no matter what medium it exists in or what product or service it offers, must comply with the local laws of the country in which it wishes to do business. For Google to operate in China means it has to contend with the laws that govern China — that means removing content from their service that are in violation of China’s information ban. Regardless of how we view China’s policies, they are what will guide and rule whatever company cares to hang a shingle inside their borders.

Lest we forget, though, it’s not just China. Microsoft got slapped by the EU for Windows Media Player. Last time I checked, I didn’t hear the west complaining about that. In fact, we were encouraging the EU to fine Microsoft and force changes. This was just the EU enforcing the laws they have adopted, for better or for worse.

And it’s not to say that Google has become wimpy, either. Remember when the White House demanded records on pornography searches on their indexes? Google refused to hand them over. We lauded them for that. But it wasn’t because they knew they’d win the hearts of users. It was their policy not to hand over information that was in potential violation of the law. “Do no evil” includes abiding by the laws they operate under.

Google won’t be the only one. Yahoo’s following Google to China. And they are also encountering the laws that have given Google so much trouble. The word “fight” has shown up, but it’s not a fight — it’s an adaptation. Yahoo, like Google, will need to consider (and probably will end up) censoring its content if it wants to gain the favour needed to earn money behind the Great Wall. And if China asks for information on one of its users, Yahoo will comply.

So perhaps its time for everyone to pull their highly enlightened heads out of the sand and look around. The world doesn’t end at North America’s borders. Things are different out there, and companies have to play by different rules if they wish to earn revenue in other nations. And it doesn’t matter what moral direction that company says it will follow.

The idea here is to pressure China to change its policies by forcing companies to bring in western ideals. This is not a realisitic perspective. Companies will not force changes in an economy the size of China’s. It’s not feasible. Companies are too small, too insignficiant. And they know it. Only governments can inflict changes like the ones activists want to see. They want human rights brought in like those in the west. They want Tibet freed. Google can’t do that. Yahoo can’t do that.

You want that kind of change? Get your government to change. They’re the ones who can influence change through trade sanctions, through changes in diplomatic behaviour. Only when political pressure is enacted will it be possible for change to take place. And China’s considerable economy is tough to overcome.

Don’t punish Google (or Yahoo, for that matter) for complying with the laws of another country. Talk to your elected official. Lodge your complaints. Make your voice heard by your government. Only through them will the changes you want to see take place.

On being a Know-it-all

I am a know-it-all. Both in the best and worst senses.

I became one as a kid. When all of my friends were reading Hardy Boys or Lord of the Rings, I was reading through Time Life books, learning how the universe worked — from the formation of suns right down to the reproductive systems in humans.

That was Mom’s doing, actually. She knew two things of my behaviour. First, that I read a lot. If we’d had the Encyclopedia Britannica, I would have read the whole thing, cover to cover. It’s probably a good thing that we didn’t, actually. The other thing was that I was nosey. I knew most of Mom’s good hiding spots for presents. (I’m sure Mom had a few others that I hadn’t even considered.) That was how Mom managed to sneak in a book that she was sure I would read.

The human body made up as robots, all geared to explain sexual reproduction to kids. Sounds like a weird concept. The first time that I read the book, it didn’t sink in. Something just didn’t make sense. When I reread the book a few months later (Mom had since then removed the book from the “hiding” place to the bookshelf), it stuck. It didn’t fit with my world view at the time, so required some additional processing.

My appetite for information, however, didn’t waiver. Mom got me another set of books — Time Life again — on Planet Earth. This covered pretty much every angle of Earth’s formation, behaviour, the things that make it up, and the things that live on it. Given that it’s Time Life, it’s not super-detailed, but it allowed me to get a decent grasp on plate tectonics.

In Grade Eight.

My English teacher believed that my parents had written the report rather than myself. At the time, I hadn’t understood the accusation, but would later realize what she was getting at.

Jeopardy bored me. My family had a habit of watching Wheel of Fortune (which I couldn’t stand, then or now) and Jeopardy over dinner. If I didn’t “win” the episode, I often came darn close. The Teen and College editions were laughable.

In university, I made it a habit of taking a variety of courses — for interests’ sake. I went in for Computer Science, came out with an English degree, and took courses from nearly every faculty along the way. Some because I needed courses other than my core ones, but others because they looked interesting. And I learned a lot.

The internet has been my biggest provider, despite the risk of inaccurate (or completely false) information that is sometimes to be found there. The Wikipedia is my latest obsession, and I regularly find myself consciously steering clear of it so I don’t become completely absorbed. That, combined with my 70 or so RSS feeds do a pretty decent job of filling my head full of often-useless crap.

And believe me, I keep it pretty full. It got so full that I eventually reached “informational mass”, the point at which a person is no longer able to keep this information bottled up and feels the urge to share it with everyone else. Often at annoying or poorly coordinated times. I became Cliff Claven.

Yes, my friends have called me that. To my face. In front of my family. Several times.

I can’t help it! I’m sure that psychiatry would be well-motivated to investigate this mental illness if they knew how many people are afflicted with know-it-all-ism. Just imagine how many people must require treatment for the sake of their sanity, their marriages, or even their jobs!

My job has been both a blessing and a curse for my know-it-all-ism. It requires me to know a lot to enable decision making, and affords me the chance to offer up information to help others. However, it means that I’ll frequently offer information that has nothing to do with the work at hand … such as the specific date the Romanov family was assassinated (16 July 1918) and that Anastasia didn’t survive as myth sometimes suggests.

One of my ex-project managers, Nancy, even called me on one of my factoids:

Geoff, do you actually know that, or do you just make yourself out to sound like you know?

I replied:

The best part is that you’ll never know for sure.

That’s the key to being a know-it-all: confidence. Doesn’t matter if you know something or not. You could be completely wrong about it. But you have to sound like you’re right, completely and without the possibility of fault. So long as someone is convinced that you know what you’re talking about (even if you’re way off), then you’re a trusted source.

Oh, and you have to speak your mind. Often out-of-turn. When no-one asked for it. That’s also a defining point of a know-it-all.

Take the case of A.J. Jacobs, for example. He dedicated himself to the task of reading the Encyclopedia Britannica end-to-end under the guise of becoming the smartest person in the world. And then he wrote a book about the journey.

I mention this because I’m reading the book. I’m only up to P, but so far it’s been a great book. Especially for me since I really identify with A.J. Or should that be sympathize? Well, I suppose it works both ways. It’s a great read, though. I’m not sure it’s for everyone, mind you, since you need to be a bit of a know-it-all to fully appreciate its humour.

Even A.J., having read the Britannica, admits that you can’t know everything, and a lot of what you “know” depends on how well you can convince others. Take his brother-in-law, Eric, who tried to convince his own wife that a waitress serving them was not from a small town hear where his wife was raised, but in Eastern Europe. Needless to say, A.J. was quite pleased when Eric go trounced. And A.J. learned the secret of being a know-it-all.

I try to manage my dissemination of knowledge, but I know full well that I periodically still sound like Cliff. Without the accent, that is. Or the postal carrier outfit.

Starbucks discontinues Chantico?

I hate Starbucks.

Not because the word “Starbucks” has come to mean anything so popular and prevalent as to find it on every street corner. Not because they’ve taken the idea of luxury coffee and turned it into a readily-accessible commodity. Not because they charge almost five dollars for a coffee.

I hate them because they stopped making Chantico.

What is Chantico? I could use the superlative: “hot sex in a small cup”, but even that doesn’t quite cut it. So I’ll give you the actual definition: hot whole milk, ground chocolate, a bit of flavour, made really thick. It’s drinking chocolate. It’s like heating up a Dairy Milk bar and sucking it back before it resolidifies.

It’s not for everyone. I know a few people who can’t stand it. It’s strong. Really strong. It’s like a kick to the head compared to regular hot chocolate. (Especially when you ask for a shot of peppermint syrup in it!) But to anyone who loves chocolate, it’s pure heaven.

And incidentally, I’m not referring to people who like chocolate who say they love it. You don’t have an obsession for it. You don’t start drooling uncontrollably when you see a box of Lindt Lindors. You don’t go into convulsions when you enter a Bernard Callebaut store. The scent of quality dark chocolate doesn’t cause blackouts.

I should join Chocolate Lover’s Anonymous. I know I should. But I can’t. I don’t want to wean myself off of chocolate. When I see the episode of the Simpson’s where Homer daydreams that he’s in the Land of Chocolate — I identify with that! I think how wonderful a place like that would be! Damn the implications of malnourishment and tooth decay — it’s all about the gratification!

That’s what Chantico is … or rather, was, for me. It was the little land of chocolate in a small paper container. I weep for the loss, as I know of no replacement for it. My life will likely change now as I embark on a journey to find that replacement. I will search high, low, in, out, up, down, forward, backward, under, over, through, and around every single place I ever happen to be, searching for a recipe, a scrap of knowledge, even a hint of a whisper that I might yet again experience the sheer ecstacy that is drinking chocolate.

So if you do one day come across a poor, broken man on the side of the road who asks you for a chocolate bar, give the poor man pity. It’s not his fault. The chocolate made me do it.

That is why I hate Starbucks.

Back from the dead … sorta

Wow. Long time no write, eh?

It’s amazing how one’s life can change so dramatically in such a short period of time. Things that had once been hugely important become minor, and things you never imagined having a major sway in life suddenly start dominating every action and thought.

I’m not going to recap the events of 2005 — at least not in detail. Suffice to say, a lot has happened. I went around the world. I got promoted. I got married. I moved into a new house. I travelled. I welcomed a new niece. I worked far harder than I had in a long time, and pretty much shrank off into a little world of my own.

That’s what happens when you don’t try to balance yourself better. The only result of that is suffering. Not just yourself (or myself, as the case ended up being) but also those around you. It’s hard, and some of the decisions you make are not always wise ones.

Because of the last year, I backed off of writing a lot. I tried getting back into it with more ranting (like that ever accomplished anything), and then decided I need to take my site in a different direction and started doing a photo blog. That was not quite a disaster, but I just couldn’t keep up to the schedule I had tried to set myself. The website takes a decided backseat to everything else. It has to.

Ultimately, I became very dissatisfied with the way things were going. I was ruining a lot of things, mostly because I kept stewing over things not going the way I’d like them to. This website, believe it or not, was one of the key things driving me nuts.

Spammers are a problem. I didn’t get into the site a lot, but when I did, I spent way too much time cleaning up the mess. As nice as blogging tools are, some things are just not needed. And apparently, those bonehead script kiddies out there haven’t figured out that comment spam doesn’t do anything other than piss off the administrator. You can only take so much garbage on Texas Hold’em poker sites before you finally go off the deep end.

I decided to go back to my roots. Hand-coded. Hand-administered. Old school. But far less prone to problems, even with the extra work needed to do even a simple post as this one.

So I’m back, and I’m hoping to stay around a little more frequently. Emphasis on the word “hope”.