Monday, September 27, 2010

Blogfest aftermath

Well, wasn't that a fun weekend?

Friday evening Ali and Megan had departed for a weekend Guide camp. Matthew and I had tucked into sausage & mash & beans, and the dishes were now all cleared away. With a glass of wine in hand, a peaceful evening lay ahead.

Just on the spur of the moment, I saw and joined in the blogging experiment at Elena Johnson's blog. I posted my entry, added my details to the formidable list of participants, and took a sip of wine while I decided what to do next.


Darn it. The kids have left the sound turned on again. I'll check on email later.



Huh? Has the ISP's spam filter broken down or something?!


Already? Palms sweating, I checked my stats. Holy pageloads, Batman! People are visiting. And what's this? A new follower?

And so it went on through Saturday and into Sunday. A frenzy of visits and comments, while I tried to keep up (in between shopping, cooking, and carpentry) and perambulated through some of the 193 other varied and insightful posts.

If that excitement all sounds a bit lame, please note that I can still remember the surprise, earlier this year, when my first follower showed up and the first comment appeared. And it is only one week since I celebrated breaking into double figures.

Bear in mind, also, that I started this off with no expectations other than providing a handy archive for my family and friends on the other side of the world to keep in touch with goings-on here in more depth than the occasional phone call, email, and annual newsletter. So, as a confirmed sociophobe and resolute non-networker, I stand in awe of all you venerable bloggers with followers in the hundreds. How do you cope?

For the benefit of visitors, here's how I try to work. I appreciate every visit and treasure every comment. If you value your time as much as I do, then I appreciate that you spend some of it with me and I believe in responding to comments as quickly as I reasonably can.

And all you new followers, thank you for joining the family here at The Bald Patch, and I hope you take the time to drop by again. What you see here, in the very nearly 100 posts on offer, is pretty much how it will probably continue.

In turn, I will look you up, hunt you down, seek out your blogs, and get to know you. It might take time because I'm still feeling slightly overwhelmed, and I'm still grazing at the feast of advice on how to write compelling characters, but I will get around to it. So please be patient.

Now, once more, as is our usual custom on a Monday night, curry and beer is calling me.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

It'll never fly, I tell you!

It's three weeks since I last posted a progress report on the pirate ship, and just over three months since I started building.

Wow! Is that all it's been? It feels a lot longer. Three months of sometime intense effort, with many breaks and interruptions.

Not a huge amount accomplished in the last three weeks because both time and conditions have been against me.

This month, of course, is dominated by return to school, and all the usual after-school activities ramping up. Now that Megan has started in middle school we had, not one, but two "meet the teacher" nights last week. Fortunately on different nights.

Then, shortly after my last post on the subject, the weather turned. Not many opportunities to work on the side planking that you can see here. You can also see how damp everything is; all that previously clean decking is now covered in leaves and bits from the trees. So this is going to be slow work from now on.

I decided a long time ago not to try planking everything solidly, and I'm glad I chose not to. When I started on the bits above deck, I realised how much it would emphasise the flat planes of this only-moderately-boat-shaped structure. Leaving gaps lower down, and subtly varying the widths of the gaps, helps to hide the true shape and give an illusion of roundness.

Luckily there's still plenty of pieces I can work on in the shelter of the garage. This weekend I'm making sets of steps to lead up from the waist deck to the raised platforms fore and aft. Then the top masts will take a bit of work before I'm ready to lift them into place. And I've started drawing up plans for the wheel and working out how to go about making it. Making large round things out of wood is not easy.

Friday, September 24, 2010

How to write compelling characters

Blogger friend Elena Solodow posted a link to this cool blogging experiment at Elena Johnson's blog. At the time of writing, there were 193 bloggers signed up to post about this topic: How to write compelling characters.

OK, I confess some small feelings of fraudulence here, because I know that characters are one of my weak spots. Along with plot, tension, story arc, dialogue, punctuation...

So who am I to be giving advice here? But I'm a sucker for an interesting experiment, so, in the name of science, here goes...

My piece of advice is simple: Observe real people.

Your characters are people, and people are infinitely interesting. How better to make your characters compelling than to look at what you find compelling in people? Besides, truth is stranger than fiction, so I bet you can find more depth and variety in the real world than you'd ever be able to dream up for yourself. And if you ground yourself in reality, I bet you can envisage a characterstic more fully and therefore write about it more compellingly than if you'd just invented it.

Even your non-people characters probably need to have some kind of recognisable traits for readers to identify with. And if you are trying to emphasise the alien-ness of a character, you need a solid reference point of how humans behave from which to depart.

Of course, I don't mean just copy any old features you see, but rather draw your inspiration from real life.

For example, if you need a villain, rather than drag out a stereotype from the dusty "villains" box on the shelf above your desk, look at some real villains. What motivated Jack the Ripper? Can you capture the ruthlessness of Al Capone? What compelled millions of decent, upstanding citizens follow Adolf Hitler so enthusiastically into war?

Or add depth to a character by using details you've observed elsewhere. I don't mean to base your characters on people around you, but take note of specifics that really caught your eye. Maybe a characteristic gesture or manner of speech, or something about the way they walk. Someone's insistence on dunking their teabag for no more than four seconds when making a cup of tea. Someone else's collection of pysanky lining the bookshelves in their living room.

If you introduce things that truly fascinated you, then you can bring that fascination out on the page. Polish it up to a shine and share it with your readers. But be sparing. You don't want the detail to overwhelm the character. Tease your readers with tantalising glimpses of these gems of insight. I'm sure they will thank you for it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Ministry of Crap Design

Just in case any government spooks are reading, this post has nothing whatever to do with my life as a public servant. The title comes from the British comedian, Ben Elton. He observed that so many things in life are so blatantly badly designed that even a monkey would know better. And yet they still manage to reach the marketplace, and us unsuspecting consumers. The only plausible explanation, he concluded, was that there must be a secretive government department dedicated to the promotion of such products: the Ministry of Crap Design.

Despite the comedy (and sadly I was unable to find a clip of this particular monologue) he highlighted a serious problem in society.

Now, I don't subscribe to the management-speak that runs along the lines of "don't bring me your problems, bring me solutions." That, to me, is smug bullshit. Willful abdication of duty. Lazy executives giving themselves permission to stick their heads in the sand and expect their staff to do their jobs for them.

But in this case I am able to offer a solution to at least a part of the problem of bad design, specifically around the modern penchant for excessive packaging, and most particularly that bane of modern life..."easy open" packaging.

How many fingernails have I shredded trying to unpick the tiny tabs mocking me from the edge of the kevlar disc welded to the top of a new ketchup bottle? How many foil yoghurt lids have come away in my hands, leaving the contents accessible only after a frenzied attack with a spoon? How often have I pressed on the indicated spot on the side of a carton only to see the carton collapse before the perforations give way?

I've long since given up even trying to peel back the temptingly free corner on packets of ham or pasta; I just go straight for the kitchen knife. And I've come to the realisation that the invitation to "tear here" is really a cruel pun on the lachrymose interpretation of "tear".

Today's exercise in frustration involved trying to pop gel capsules of cold remedy from their blister pack, which required the application of more force than the capsule could withstand.

My solution is simple.

The entire packaging design team of a new product shall henceforth be locked in a room with a cart full of samples. Not, I hasten to add, the carefully crafted proofs of concept from their pristine laboratory benches, made and tested under ideal conditions, but a bucketload of customer-ready products picked at random off supermarket shelves across the country. Samples that have gone through the standard manufacturing process and accompanying quality control, and endured the hardships of storage and distribution. In other words, exactly what you and I will end up buying.

The team will not be allowed to see the light of day again until they have each successfully opened one hundred consecutive samples.

Any failures along the way, and they all start over again from the beginning.

That, my friends, is called "motivation".

Monday, September 20, 2010

Reasons to be cheerful, one, two, three

Ever get those spells in life where just about everything seems to be dragging at you, and life seems to have lost its sparkle, then suddenly things seem to click into place again? Bit like struggling up a long hill in an old jalopy, wondering if you're going to make it, then reaching the crest and coasting effortlessly along the flat.

Last week was rather dreary - little opportunity to progress the pirate ship - and then a tiring weekend. I always struggle with the darkening mornings this time of year anyway, but it was a herculean effort this morning to drag myself to work, feeling horribly unfit because I've not been cycling much this summer. My blog has been feeling sad and lonely recently too, and many of the blogs I follow or lurk on regularly have been unusually quiet which left me with a slightly unsettled feeling.



This afternoon I got home from work to find that the sun had been out all day and the grass was dry. Time to get the mower out for the first time in two months!

Yes, it's been that kind of summer. Not that it hasn't been dry, but apart from the camping interludes it hasn't lent itself to the normal kind of relaxing summery activities, let alone routine lawn maintenance, but that's food for a whole 'nuther post.

Suffice to say, the jungle has been tamed and the yard looks a whole lot better for it.


I checked my blog and found that my followers have sneaked into double digits! Hurray!

OK, I know that's small beer compared to many, but - hey! - little things...little minds... and all that.

So welcome newcomers, and welcome anyone who happens to stray unwittingly across this patch of the blogosphere. Please feel free to make yourselves known with a comment or two. There's plenty of room...


I checked my inbox and found a note from an old friend from university who I've been out of touch with for nearly three decades, and who I managed to track down at the weekend.

And now, curry and beer beckons.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Something to brighten a up dreary Sunday

With the rain hammering down outside my window slowly giving way to damp fog, things to cheer about are most welcome. I offer you this little gem that Ali, the Internet Ferret, unearthed...

This tickled me on so many levels. I am awed by the breathtaking technical artistry, light years beyond any feeble attempt of mine to tap out a rhythm to a tune. Then there is the surreal juxtaposition of the hand dance and the deadpan expressions of the performers, and the comic effects of the occasional unexpected movements. Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

To infinity, and...wait for it...wait...

Something that occasionally raises my blood pressure is the abuse of the words "infinite", "infinity", and the related idea of "eternity."

"The possibilities are nearly infinite," people say. No, they're not! The biggest number you can imagine is still pathetically finite. There is no such thing as nearly infinite.

The problem, aside from my tendency towards pathological pedantry, is that people who use words in this way have no idea what mind-bending concepts they are belittling.

So, let me try to open up a tiny window onto the infinite. Or rather, onto eternity, which is nothing more than an infinite amount of time. No, this is not to give believers in an eternal afterlife pause for thought (though that would be fun), but simply because I find it easier to talk about in a way that might go beyond the intellectual definition and reach into your imagination.

Even so, it isn't too easy. I'm going to approach it kinda sideways in the hope that I can startle this simple but elusive idea into revealing itself. So here goes ...

Imagine a diamond. Shiny, flawless.

Imagine you've coated the diamond in something that attracts flies.

The diamond is crawling with flies, landing, walking around, taking off.

Would they make a mark on it? Probably not in your lifetime. But what if it was there for thousands of years? Is it conceivable that eventually all this insect-trampling will start to take the gloss off that perfect surface?

Well, it might take a heck of a long time, but sooner or later, atom by atom, those flies must eventually make some kind of impression. And if they can make even the slightest impression, then sooner or later they will be able to make a visible scratch on the surface.

Given enough time.

But we're talking about eternity here, so we've got as much time as we want.

And then there are real world examples of "soft" things making a real impression on "hard" things. Think of the stone staircases of an Oxford college, distinct treads worn out of their centres through centuries of trudging feet. Think of the infamous "licking stones" at Carlisle castle, with deep indentations worn out by parched prisoners' tongues. When you put it in those terms it doesn't sound so far-fetched. And we can give it as much time as it takes.

So, fix it in your mind that, never mind how long, eventually all those tiny feet can make a visible scuff even on hard diamond.

So far, so good? Now let's step it up a bit.

Imagine a whole planet made of solid diamond. Stop drooling. You can't have it. It's somewhere out in space far away from us. Far away from anything, in fact. No starlight, cosmic dust, or anything to disturb its impossible perfection.

Except that, once every million years, an immortal fly zooms in, lands, and takes off again. Nothing happens for another million years, then the fly returns, lands in the same spot, and takes off again. And so on.

OK, don't get nit-picky about the physical absurdity of this, or ask whether the planet has an atmosphere, or how a fly manages to escape into space again. Or even how the fly knows which spot on a flawless surface it landed on last time. You didn't bat an eyelid at the idea of an immortal fly, did you?

Now think back to the first scenario. Nothing has really changed, except for a matter of scale. The diamond is bigger, and we've stretched it out in time. Rather a lot. And there's only one fly.

But even in this stretched out scenario, that persistent fly must eventually start to make a microscopic mark on the surface of the planet.

Not in the life of this Universe. Or many times that life. But it will happen.

That microscopic mark will turn into a visible scratch. The scratch into a hole. Maybe a millimetre across.

And you're out there watching it.

Having fun yet?

So, we start all over with another hole next to the first one. Then another. Keep going ... We've now pitted a tiny piece of the surface the size of a newspaper. Start over next door. And again. And again. Eventually that patient (and immortal!) fly has pitted an area the size of your backyard. Your neighbourhood. Your municipality. Your parish or county. You can imagine this carrying on, endlessly, one visit at a time, a million years apart.

But we have all the time we want, so that doesn't matter.

Keep going! You're on a roll! You've covered an area the size of a country. Now cross the border and start all over again on the neighbouring country. Fill in the map. Picture the borders of all the countries of Earth (long since vanished) projected onto this diamond planet and fill them in, one by one. And the seas and oceans.

You now have a whole planet pitted all over like a cosmic golf ball.

Now start at the beginning again, and wear down the ridge around the first little hole. And the next. Oh're not done yet!

Let's make the diamond smooth again, until we're back to a flawless planet-sized diamond that looks just like it did all those aeons ago.

But one millimetre smaller across.

Now guess what? We're going to start out all over. A complete repeat of all that mind-numbing waiting we just finished. Then we're going to do it all over again. And again. Wearing the planet down, layer by layer, until there is nothing left.

Having trouble grasping that? Not surprising. Your mind probably never got past the "million year" bit, because that is already more time than most people can imagine. And the human mind tends to scale thing up logarithmically, so that each new order of magnitude feels like just another step like the last one, instead of resetting back to the beginning and starting all over again and again and again.

So if your mind started boggling somewhere along the way, don't worry. Just grasp it as best you can. Get past the absurdity of the scenario and really think about each stage in the process until you simply can't get your head around it any more.

It doesn't matter where you fall off the rails, because the real point is that, after all this time, all these many ages of our Universe, time beyond imagining, you haven't even begun to scratch the surface of eternity.

You could reset the clock back to the start and do the whole thing over again. You could do it over a million times, and you would still be firmly stuck in the realms of the finite.

No closer to eternity than you were at the end of reading this post.

Infinity is gob-smackingly big. Please treat it with respect.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


With the end of August, someone seemed to have turned the dial from "Summer" to "Autumn".

Sorry, I can't bring myself to say "Fall". To my British background, the only seasonal association I have for that word is vibrant New England colours on the pages of a travel magazine. To me, the unsettled blustery winds, grey skies and pervasive damp, gloomy mornings and darkening evenings, always mean Autumn.

Other associations for this time of year: Return to school, lighting log fires, hearty soups and stews back on the dinner menu. And taking opportunities in breaks in the weather to get out of the house for hikes in one of the many parks in the neighbourhood.

To add to our repertoire of diversions, yesterday we discovered geocaching.

This activity is where you use a GPS system to hunt down caches of treasure scattered around the world. Yesterday we took a drive out to Goldstream Provincial Park to find some of the caches hidden there.

Matthew spotted the first one, hidden alongside the path between the parking lot and the Nature House. Then we headed in the other direction, up a steep staircase in the side of the hill and onto the flanks of Mt. Finlayson. The second cache took some tracking down. We were in the right spot but were looking all around for a clue mentioned in the notes. We didn't find the clue, but eventually Ali unearthed the camouflaged box in a log exactly where we'd first started looking.

The third almost had us stumped. The clues mentioned boulders and arbutus trees, all to be found in great abundance on the hillside, but which ones were the right ones? In the end, we had to go step by step, locating the correct boulder from the coordinates on GPS, and following the directions from there. Megan found this box in the end, then it was time to hike back to the car and head for home.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

(2005) Confusion rules!

September 2005

Dear Aunt Agatha,

It is wonderful to see a regular pay cheque going into the bank account again after all those months, but - man! - what I'm having to do to earn it! It's such a huge adjustment after my previous work experiences, on so many fronts.

First of all, the organisation itself is vast compared to what I'm used to. This is only my third employer (not counting fill-in jobs here & there), but the previous two were at least sizeable by Guernsey standards. Guernsey Electricity at 250, and Barings at 500. Both were part of larger organisations, one belonging to the public service and the other a company within the ginormous ING Group, but those wider organisations barely made themselves felt. A memo here and there, an intellectual awareness of the parent organisation, but very little practical impact on day-to-day life.

Here, I'm in a division, 500-strong, which is just a small part of a ministry, just one of many in the BC Public Service. And I can
feel the weight of the org structure above and around me.

To compound matters, the organisational detail is way more granular. Both Guernsey Electricity and Barings had a relatively small number of departments and I knew the function of each of them. I could go to (for example) any one of maybe 20 people in the custody department and ask a question, and get a consistent answer. They worked as a coherent and robust team. Here, there is so much specialisation that the number of distinct functions is vastly greater for the same number of people. Often there is only
one person in the whole organisation with a particular set of knowledge. I keep asking about things, and instead of being told "you need to speak to someone in department X", I get "you need to speak to Joe Bloggs." And if Joe Bloggs isn't there, hard luck! I've spent ages trying to map out the working relationships of the many individuals I need to deal with, and just listing out the departments is mind-boggling.

My head is spinning trying to take it all in.

Then there is the process - and/or lack of it. On the one hand, we know that Canadians love their paperwork. We'd heard about that any number of times during the immigration process, and we've seen it in action since.

My first few days at work were largely spent alone at my desk ploughing through a two-inch stack of forms.

I jest not!

And yet, bizarrely enough, I've also found an astonishing
lack of standards and processes that I've taken for granted for so many years. I'm losing count of how many times I've asked "how do I do X?" and then spent a merry few hours like an amateur sleuth tracking down the answer. Because nobody really knows for sure, and you can be sure it's not written down anywhere in a readily accessible way. And every department will have evolved their own unique way of doing things, so any advice you get may not hold true for your own situation.

Even something as simple as an up-to-date org chart, an invaluable atlas for a newcomer, is not available. Not, at least, for the use of us hoi polloi.

This, I've discovered, is where it really pays to make friends with a good admin assistant. They usually know the answer, or where to start looking for it.

Finally, there are the many cultural differences to cope with. I suppose we've been relatively insulated from it so far. Yes, we've dealt with all sorts of new things these past few months, but they have all been individual instances and short-lived. Now I'm fully immersed in it throughout the day. The biggest and most widespread difference I've found is that people are a lot more open and forthright than I'm used to. If someone doesn't like something, they'll say so. None of the British reserve here! I've seen personal dislikes coming up in meetings, sniping, bullying, and I've heard many anecdotes of outright shouting matches, tears, and door-slamming. Maybe I've not experienced a wide enough sample of British workplaces, but in the settings I do know, behaviours like that would have been almost impossible to imagine. I've come to the realisation that diplomacy and people-management is going to be a much larger part of my job than anything remotely technical.

But, as I keep reminding myself, I'm happy to put up with a lot for the benefits it brings us.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Decked from stem to stern

A milestone reached today. The last ribs in place and the last deck plank nailed down.

I thought this last section would be plain sailing - rectangular area, and 8' long so most of the planks wouldn't even need cutting to length - but I should know better than to be too cocky. This last bit of decking put up a fight and took me all afternoon.

It started off hopefully enough. Once I'd cut the middle planks around the masts and nailed them in place, I measured the remaining gap across the width. It looked like I'd struck lucky and ended up with an exact multiple of plank widths. Once I started laying them out, though, I realised I had to chisel out notches along the sides to allow the side planks to snug into the ribs, and then I still had to plane 1/8" off two planks (one each side) to squeeze them in.

Planing a strip off an 8' plank isn't difficult, but it is time consuming. Anyway, I finished with a tight fit, which is good because I know from experience that they are likely to shrink a bit over time.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Qualicum Bay 2010

No pirate ship update (in case you were wondering) because we were up-island again last weekend for the last family camp of the summer. Just a few nights this time, at Qualicum Bay Resort.

This was a new place for us, and we were pleased with our choice. They had a well-equipped playground, and our pitch was spacious and secluded, overlooking one of the ponds in the middle of the campground.

We broke with tradition for our first night camping. Instead of the pasta carbonara that we've always cooked on our first night away ever since the kids were young, we were tempted into the on-site Chinese restaurant. We ordered a range of dishes - what we thought would be a suitable amount, expecting only a moderate portion of each. We were staggered when we saw the mountain of food on each platter, but the quality and flavour was equally amazing. In the end, we made respectable inroads into the feast and had enough leftovers bagged up for a decent lunch the next day.

Unlike Pacific Playgrounds, this was a vacation for getting out and about off the campground. We visited the beautiful Little Qualicum Falls, the children's favourite playground at Parksville, Qualicum Beach itself, and Coombs (of course! No visit to that part of the island is complete without a mooch around the famous market). To round off the trip, we stopped in at the World Parrot Refuge, where we were able to say "hello" to some gorgeous birds.

Once more we were lucky with the weather, driving home and unloading in sunshine then waking up the next morning to grey skies and rain.
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