Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The storms subside

Well, I feel like I've been through the wringer, and so do the rest of the family.

On Sunday we all went downtown to visit Princess. One look at her, lying huddled and miserable, and utterly unresponsive, broke my heart. We spoke to the vet. All they could offer us was the prospect of more tests that would either confirm something untreatable, or leave us just as much in the dark.

It was not an easy decision, but in the end we called time. We gave the children the choice of being there, or not. Matthew stayed out in the waiting room. Megan cried here eyes out but chose not to leave. We said our goodbyes to Princess, and the vet gave her the injection. I cradled her head while she died. We brought her home and buried her in the front garden.

Life at work has been quite surreal all week, while us non-union folks wait to learn whether or not we'll still be in jobs by the end of the week. Not much speculation going around, just anxious waiting and trying to pick off a few tasks here and there. Nobody's been able to do much of anything while we wait to see where the axe will fall.

Today was the day. Checking email every few minutes to see if there's the dreaded 15 minute meeting invitation with the Exec Director. Speculation now running rampant through the building. Who's moved? Who's gone? Time is ticking. Not heard anything. Am I safe yet? Four o'clock. They must have notified everyone affected by now! But I won't relax until I see my name still on the org chart.

Finally! The all clear sounds. The org chart is available. And, yes, I still exist.

The week has not been all gloom, though.

We have booked a summer camping trip up-island to a campground we thoroughly enjoyed last year. We plan to book a couple more weekend trips too, but we'll worry about that later.

On Monday, I made my first cycling commute of the year. It's a one-hour journey each way, compared to the 5 to 10 minute hop depending on traffic that I used to have in Guernsey, so it is serious exercise and not something I do every day. I stop each year when the light fails, and start again three months or so later. Just long enough to get out of condition and build up my winter paunch. Getting going again is hard work. My legs turned to jelly when I got off my bike Monday evening!

Oh...and the fish are still swimming!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Multiple whammy!

This has not been the best of weeks.

A couple of weekends ago, Ali comes back from a friend's house with a fish tank that her friend no longer wants. "What are you going to do with that?" I ask. Silly question. Kids all excited at the idea of adding to the household menagerie, and in come two guppies.

Two days later, Megan's dies. Very upsetting, but soon a carbon copy is installed (hmm...could you really make a carbon copy of a carbon-based life form?) and all is well.

Until this week.

Tuesday (again) kids return from school to find Megan's guppy dead (again). "I hate Tuesdays," she sniffles.

Wednesday, Matthew's joins it in the great fish bowl in the sky.

Wednesday, also, is a grim day at work. My Ministry is shedding over 200 jobs as part of "transformation", another word for cost-cutting for those to whom the only costs worth counting are financial. Unionised staff got their letters on Wednesday, including people in danger of being "bumped" under the union rules for clinging on to long-serving people at the expense of the new blood essential for the future. Many offices severely slashed, including some friends and valued colleagues of mine.

The best bit is, we now know there are a load of non-union (that's me!) redundancies still to be announced, but not until next week. Keep sweating guys!

Thursday, Ali finds one of our cats, Princess, looking ill and in pain. Rushes her off to the vet, worried about a road hit. If only it was that simple. No signs of trauma, possibility of poisoning or some kind of infection.

Friday, she is no better I take her back and then sign her in to the vetinary hospital downtown. Lots of waiting around. Urine sample shows protein and other stuff that shouldn't be there, and red blood cells getting sticky & clumping. Not good signs, but too many possible underlying causes for any certainty of treatment.

Sunday, we could be looking at pancreatic cancer, but still not positive.

The cost of all this would be worrying at the best of times, but this has come at the worst possible time on top of all the uncertainty at work.

Not made any progress on writing this week. I just can't get enthusiastic about anything like that right now. But we now have two zebra fish, still going strong!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

(2005) Getting ready to move in

January 2005

Dear Aunt Agatha,

After all the excitement of Christmas, and some brilliantly sunny unwintery days, we had our first taste of snow. Only a couple of inches, but kids v. excited! I walked Megan to school in it, I think I might have a photo somewhere to send you. Apparently this is a rarity for Victoria. They seem to see the white stuff about as often as Guernsey.

We are in the habit, on our frequent visits up the Peninsula, to drive past and say 'hello' to our new house. They were under a foot or so of snow long after downtown had cleared up. Something for the kids to look forward to in future years maybe?

We're busy planning the logistics for our move next month. Loads of people to contact, utilities to arrange, home insurance, and various change of address notifications. The biggest headache was picking through the options for phones, cable TV, and internet. There are various providers to choose from who provide some or all services, and all sorts of combinations and discounts for combining services. We ended up choosing Telus for our landlines, and Shaw for cable and high speed internet.

Seems American companies are fond of using technology in place of human beings when it comes to customer service. Trying to get help from Telus was one of the most frustrating exercises imaginable. We want to open a new account. "Please enter your account number" the recorded voice insisted. We don't have one. That is what we are trying to obtain. And don't get me started on their voice recognition system that I guess can't cope with anything not in an American accent.

Then again, other things were remarkably painless. Like dealing with the lawyers to sign papers and arrange for payment. So much easier than Guernsey, especially with our realtor still steering us through the process.

Of course, we called our shipping agents in England ages ago to let them know when we wanted our container delivered. We contacted the Vancouver office this month to find out whether or not it had reached them yet. Apparently we were extremely lucky. It set off by road from Montreal the day before severe weather hit them. Most other containers from that shipment are still stuck there! Now all we need to do is receive the customs paperwork, sign and return it, and arrange a date when they have a driver available.

And to round things off, we've been busy buying things for the house. Yes, we'll have all our furniture and other things from Guernsey (so relieved it didn't end up floating around in the Atlantic!) but our old bed will go into the guest room so we need a new one big enough not to look silly in the huge master bedroom, and of course we couldn't bring over any appliances so we need things like washing machine, dryer, TV, and DVD.

And, very importantly, we did pack all our UK videos, so Ali had to find a video recorder with international settings so we can play them.

The last three months have gone in a complete whirl, but now we are so close, we are looking forward to finally having a house of our own over here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Things that go "whooo" in the night

And now we've just had our first power outage of the year.

It was windy last night.

By Victorian standards, that is.

Compared to what we were used to back in Guernsey, this would barely have merited a casual "wind's getting up a bit, eh?"

Note "getting", not "got", because the slight freshening we felt last night would have been viewed, with cocked eyebrow, as little more than a transitory state towards something worthy of comment.

And it was nothing compared to the winter Atlantic storms, the difficult-to-walk-into, the throw-rocks-the-size-of-curling-stones-from-the-beach-into-your-front-yard kinds of storms we used to enjoy.

But, for Victoria, it was windy.

The wind never used to bother me. That was when I lived in a solid stone house, with no trees within house-crushing distance. Now, overshadowed by hundred-foot firs and cedars I get a bit edgy when it starts to blow. And last night, as if to rub it in, the wind decided to whistle.

First time, I woke, startled, thinking that one of the kids was screaming. Nope. Just the wind, maybe catching the cap on the chimney. Doze off. There's that scream again! A while later I realise that we've lost power. The alarm clock is dark. Heck! And it isn't light enough in the mornings yet to wake us up in time. More reasons for restless sleep.

Hours later, very groggy, we all stumble around with flashlights getting ready for work and school, and not even my customary mug of tea to pick me up.

To find that the wind has been playing with our recycling. The boxes of tins & bottles, and bags of paper and card, that we'd put out the night before were, shall we say, redistributed. All down in front of our hedge and in the ditch across the road.

All this, before a full day's work.

*Yawn* Time for bed, said Zebedee.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I've just made the first entries in my wildlife log for this year.

This morning we all took a stroll at Swan Lake nature sanctuary. Apart from ducks and geese, we were lucky enough to see an otter mooching around the edge of the lake.

Then, while we were eating lunch, a hummingbird came to visit the feeder hanging on the deck just outside the window.

Electrons' Breath

I am now firmly into this new novel. Well, one thread of it, anyway.

The setting is late 21st century Earth. Catastrophic climate change has killed off over half the human population either directly, through starvation, or through savage conflicts while people struggled to retain footholds in habitable areas.

Most areas of the planet have turned to desert, or are battered by extreme weather, and tectonic and volcanic activity. Life has stabilised in the latter part of the century, but is now dependent on high technology and advanced computing power to manage life in a dangerous and unpredictable environment.

My protagonist, Charles, is a University professor striving to understand the disasterous choices mankind made earlier in the century that led them into an avoidable crisis. His investigations will lead him to realise that the decisions of governments and populations were being manipulated by an unseen intelligence lurking at the heart of the global computer network. What's more, it is still there, and it is dangerous!

There are a few interwoven threads to the story. Right now, I am working on Charles' path. He is so far oblivious to the hidden danger, but he's just avoided being creamed by a runaway snow plough, and he's close to getting fried in a geothermal power station. I hope I'm making things fast and exciting enough.

I've set myself a target to complete a first draft by the summer. So far, 12,000 words in. But about 1,200 words behind target for this date. That doesn't sound much, but I find this pace hard to sustain so any slippage is difficult to make up.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Everything's so cheap there, innit?

In talking to family and friends about our new life in Canada over the years, one of the most pervasive misconceptions I've tried to squash, with limited success, is the thought that you can compare prices in another country by using the currency exchange rate.

A typical conversation might go along the lines of "You bought a new bread maker? ... How much? ... Eighty dollars? ... Wow, that's cheap!" And I can hear the mental gears dividing by two (or thereabouts) to come up with forty pounds for something retailing in Curry's at (say) eighty or so.

Yes, of course it sounds cheap.

And this does work when you take a vacation. If you're holding a fistful of hard-earned sterling and exchange it for dollars, then, yes, things bought over here will often seem cheap.

But if you are trying to price up the cost of living in a new country, then this approach is not just misleading, it is downright dangerous.

Here's the thing. Once you are living and working here instead of there, you are no longer earning sterling, you are earning dollars. Sounds obvious when you say it like that, doesn't it? And yet it is so simple that it is easy to overlook, or even to dismiss it as irrelevant.

But if you are trying to anticipate what your financial position will be when you move, my advice is quite simple: forget the exchange rate. It will call you with seductive siren tones and leave your household finances in tatters on the reefs of shattered expectations. The only thing that matters is how much you earn, and how much you spend. The latter must not exceed the former. And (here is the important bit) you cannot meaningfully forecast either by applying the exchange rate to your current situation.

When you make your home in another country, expect your whole profile of income and expenditure to change.


On the income side, it's easy enough to get a sense of what your gross income might be, but out of that will come taxes and various other deductions that are likely to be substantially different from what you're used to. And Canadian tax returns are a whole other topic for another time.

Expenditure will be different too. Not only will familiar items like utilities cost different amounts, but there will likely be completely new things that you never had to worry about before. Just on utilities, for example, we used to know how much we paid for power, water, and phones. Now we have all those plus cable, internet, cell phones and gas. And a hefty bill for logs each year.

Even simple things like groceries will be all up the creek. Some things seem "reasonable" or "normal" to us now, but there are things that are truly costly. For example, we find all things dairy to be incredibly extravagant without the European farm subsidies.

And then your own attitudes to spending may well change too. We drink far less than we used to without the Guernsey attitude that "you can't possibly be having fun unless you're getting drunk".

On the other hand, we happily shell out far more on charity donations than we would ever have done in the past. There is a strong culture here of giving, both time and money.

Everything is not cheap here. Financially, we are far worse off than we used to be, but we have cheerfully swapped that for a way better lifestyle. The brutal truth is that many families we know struggle to make ends meet, and need multiple incomes to be comfortable.

The silver lining is that there will be ways to make things easier. Ask around. Get to know where locals "in the know" shop. For example, we make trips every couple of months to a wholesale outlet to buy things like laundry detergent and other household items, juice, and frozen goods in bulk at a fraction of the price of the supermarket.

So, expect everything to change. Unless you are able to do some exquisitely detailed homework, the only way to really find out is to live it for a year. Go through a complete cycle of earnings, bills, and taxes. Discard wishful thinking and keep track of reality.

And, whatever you do, forget the exchange rate!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A few more hoops

One thing we have noted about Canada from time to time is the country's love of paperwork and bureaucracy. There are forms for everything, usually many pages long, and often coming with whole instruction books on how to fill them out.

Not complaining. Much. You can't fight it. It is one of the penalties you pay for living in such a beautiful place so we just learn to slow down and slog through it all.

We had a whole heap to go through with the immigration process, which I'm convinced is a test in its own right designed to deter all but the most committed would-be-immigrants. And there was a load more to cope with in the early days. But just occasionally it still catches us unawares.

One of the things we learned last year was that our Permanent Residents cards expire after five years. No big panic. Now we are landed there's nothing to say we have to renew our cards to continue living here, it's just that you need your card to return to the country if you travel.

Sure, we decided to get started on the renewal process. We started gathering all the information and documents we'd need to submit, got our mugshots taken (professional photographer required, can't use any old passport photo), ordered some of the forms that needed to be originals, not downloadable from the Internet. Time passed, and we were still stepping through the process (all very clearly explained on the Canadian Immigration website - that is one thing they do very well), but not in any great hurry.

Now, just before Christmas, Ali was chatting to a friend of ours who works in one of the local banks, and we decided it would be a good idea to start up a Registered Education Savings Plan for the kids. If we got it started before the end of the year, we'd be able to claim allowances this year from the Government.

So Ali popped in to get things moving. Hiccup one: we needed Social Insurance Numbers for the kids in order to open up an account. We'd got them for ourselves way back when (and it was a very easy process - some things are!) but had never bothered for the children.

So Ali popped downtown to the relevant office. Hiccup two: they needed to see our Permanent Residents Cards. Nope, the old ones (just expired) wouldn't do, they had to be current.


Needless to say, the application, all neatly filled out and only about half an inch thick, is now in the mail.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year

Hope everyone out there had a great Christmas. We certainly did. A quiet family dinner Christmas day, with our friend Bob visiting from up-island to stay with us for the holiday period. Then another big dinner Boxing Day with more friends.

Christmas Eve, of course, the kids put out a snack for Santa.

Santa was privileged to get the first piece off the sugar-cookie house that Megan made at school. Her teacher baked sugar-cookies for the whole class to make their houses, and then displayed them in the classroom until end of term.

Santa was kind enough to bring them a Wii, which has kept the whole family amused ever since.

During the week after Christmas we paid another visit to Butchart Gardens for a last look at the lights...

...and a ride on the carousel.

Happy New Year.

Y2K - no problem?

It is exactly ten years since civilisation failed to collapse in the wake of the Millennium Bug. And as people reminisce about the decade just passed, they are likely to make smug comments about the apocalypse that didn't happen.

In the anticlimax, after all the hype and the worry of Y2K, after power stayed on and planes didn't fall out of the sky, the media were full of scorn for the dire predictions that people in the IT industry had been making for the previous decade.

I work in IT.

Ten years ago, my department, like countless others around the world, had spent months auditing our systems for potential issues.

We counted ourselves lucky. Our application architecture was not overly sensitive to millennium date issues, for example standard stored formats and calculations didn't depend on two digit years, and all date handling went through a small library of standard functions. We had it easy. Even so, we found and fixed many problems ahead of time that could have wreaked havoc with our financial systems if left unresolved.

And in the early days of January 2000 we encountered more problems that we and our trading partners had failed to spot.

We dealt with them. No big deal.

But it could have been very different.

We were able to cope only because we, and countless others, had already put so much work into making our systems safe. We were able to cope only because when the clock ticked into the new century we were in good shape. We had some panics that January ten years ago. We had some extra work to do, but it didn't overwhelm us.

We coped, and nobody noticed.

It is easy to dismiss the fact that what we dealt with was just the tip of the iceberg of what might have been. And it is especially frightening to realise now just how fragile the world economy is, when the failure of a couple of banks can plunge the world into recession. If we'd had a few more serious hiccups, our team would have struggled to cope. If we'd struggled, others would have felt the effects. Who knows how far those ripples might have spread?

Y2K is remembered as the disaster that never happened, but that is not because the threat wasn't real. It is because people in the IT industry around the world had taken it seriously.

In this case, no news really was good news. Don't knock it.
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