Snowbound with George on Christmas Eve

Our Patio with the most Snow we’ve ever seen on it

Our patio with the most snow we’ve ever seen on it

You always assume that things will turn out as planned, but sometimes they don’t. Pam and I had all but packed our suitcases earlier in the week for a trip to visit with my brother and his family in Seattle, as well as my parents, who were going to be visiting from Baltimore. Mother Nature had other ideas.

The fact that Canada is enjoying the first coast-to-coast ‘White Christmas’ in 40 years is not lost on me, and it is pretty out there. Pam and I had a nice time walking in the first of the snowstorms, and it looks like storm number three, which started last night, will dump nearly as much on us.

The car is not ready to drive on these kinds of roads. We don’t have any snow tires, as we don’t drive that much to begin with and neither of us use it to get to a workplace (unlike the days when I was working in Burnaby for IBM). Snow tires are not usually needed here.

So, here we are, like hibernating bears in our cave, looking out at the snow. Well, not exactly like bears in one key respect: Hibernating bears don’t eat, and I’ve been cooking like crazy. I roasted a chicken stuffed with herbs and lemon (an old Jamie Oliver recipe that I’ve committed to memory), and yesterday did a large pot roast with carrots, parsnips, turnips and potatoes.  This afternoon I baked a tray of oatmeal muffins (after also baking a bunch of cookies earlier in the week). We’ve also got some steaks in the freezer, and since Granville Market is closed for the next 2 days, we’ll probably eat those as well, along with some of other food in our larder, which we stuffed full just in case the weather did get worse.

The other thing I did, which I do nearly every year, was watch Frank Capra’s movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  For me, it transcends movie making to become a piece of art, the same way that some Norman Rockwell illustrations do. I keep finding new details in it, the way you do with any great piece of storytelling or music. There’s always some little motif or passage here or there that after the 10th hearing/viewing you suddenly realize is referred to or echoed in some other place. Capra’s film also has a lot more resonance now, when the news reports from the States earlier in the evening eerily echoed (or presaged?) the talk in the movie of people being foreclosed on their homes because of not being able to pay mortgages, runs on banks and acts of charity. How many people might be, this evening, needing to draw upon charity for the first time in their lives, the way that George Bailey had to?

I noticed that a week or so again, Wendell Jamieson of The New York Times wrote a fascinating reassessment of the film, and actually found it to be essentially a big fat lie, something that he first suspected when he was shown the film at school when he was 15 year’s old:

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.

Holy Cow!  Believe it or not, his opinion of the film’s messages actually gets harsher still:

Many are pulling the movie out of the archives lately because of its prescience on the perils of trusting bankers. I’ve found, after repeated viewings, that the film turns upside down and inside out, and some glaring — and often funny — flaws become apparent. These flaws have somehow deepened my affection for it over the years. Take the extended sequence in which George Bailey (James Stewart), having repeatedly tried and failed to escape Bedford Falls, N.Y., sees what it would be like had he never been born. The bucolic small town is replaced by a smoky, nightclub-filled, boogie-woogie-driven haven for showgirls and gamblers, who spill raucously out into the crowded sidewalks on Christmas Eve. It’s been renamed Pottersville, after the villainous Mr. Potter, Lionel Barrymore’s scheming financier.

Here’s the thing about Pottersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking.

Not only is Pottersville cooler and more fun than Bedford Falls, it also would have had a much, much stronger future. Think about it: In one scene George helps bring manufacturing to Bedford Falls. But since the era of “It’s a Wonderful Life” manufacturing in upstate New York has suffered terribly.

On the other hand, Pottersville, with its nightclubs and gambling halls, would almost certainly be in much better financial shape today. It might well be thriving.

I checked my theory with the oft-quoted Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy at New York University, and he agreed, pointing out that, of all the upstate counties, the only one that has seen growth in recent years has been Saratoga.

“The reason is that it is a resort, and it has built an economy around that,” he said. “Meanwhile the great industrial cities have declined terrifically. Look at Connecticut: where is the growth? It’s in casinos; they are constantly expanding.”

In New York, Mr. Moss added, Gov. David A. Paterson “is under enormous pressure to allow gambling upstate because of the economic problems.”

“We ease up on our lot of cultural behaviors in a depression,” he said.

What a grim thought: Had George Bailey never been born, the people in his town might very well be better off today.

Well, I’m not sure that the raunchy Vegas-like Pottersville is any better than the Biff Tannen’s alternate Universe town of Hill Valley (which doesn’t get a rename, despite the similar bizzaro treatment) in Back to the Future II.  I’ll bet that a few choice grotesque zooms on the landscape of Pottersville would have horrified the rest of us as much as it did George Bailey rather than thrill him that that his town was less boring with him not in it. Capra perhaps didn’t want to hit us over the head with the message, so it didn’t escape the 15-year old Mr. Jamieson’s cynicism.

Anyway, apt or not, I still find it a great piece of storytelling, even if it teaches us all the wrong things. Jamieson is not alone in his disdain for the film. Besides the fact that the movie was considered a financial flop (too expensive to make, didn’t make back what it cost), Charles Affron on says:

The impetus and structure of It’s a Wonderful Life recall the familiar model of Capra’s pre-war successes. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. In each of these films, the hero represents a civic ideal and is opposed by the forces of corruption. His identity, at some point misperceived, is finally acclaimed by the community at large. The pattern receives perhaps its darkest treatment in It’s a Wonderful Life. The film’s conventions and dramatic conceits are misleading. An idyllic representation of small-town America, a guardian angel named Clarence and a Christmas Eve apotheosis seem to justify the film’s perennial screenings during the holiday season. These are the signs of the ingenuous optimism for which Capra is so often reproached. Yet they function in the same way “happy endings” do in Moliere, where the artifice of perfect resolution is in ironic disproportion to the realities of human nature at the core of the plays.

Maybe I should have just watched Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer instead.

Santa, Please Bring Canada Tech Stuff

Before go any further I want to first say that I do appreciate that there’s a lot that’s gotten better in our tech lives since our move to Canada. That includes overall faster Internet connection speeds,  a great feature from our ISP that forwards a copy of any telephone voicemail to my email as an attachment (and which I can actually open and listen to on my iPhone – FTW!), and a fair amount of free Internet Wi-fi in cafés nearby.  I also appreciate that our online banking works very well (with the exception of not being able to pay US credit card balances from our US dollar account, but international rules are rules, I suppose), and that paying for purchases at your average store or even fast-food chain can almost always be done with your ATM card – something that we could never expect with any regularity in the US (Is this still the case, US readers? I haven’t checked lately.) Now, even the El Gato EyeTV software on my Mac finally gets listings for Canadian TV channels (it only took them 4 years with me bugging them at every Macworld Expo for this). Translink has 2 mobile apps for the iPhone (if you count Google as one of them), and buying movie and concert tickets online is almost something we now take for granted.

However, there are a few things in the tech realm that just plain suck in Canada. I’ve already written ad nauseum about cell phone rates being outrageous, but I had gotten used to that, except for the fact that it keeps making itself known in all sorts of places, when you least expect it. Like, for instance, Twitter, the microblogging service that I sometimes post to or use to follow the status of others. If you live in the US, you’ve probably never seen this annoying little message in your Twitter page:
Twitter Message Gripe

If there were only some way to have that message go away already… We know, we know, Twitter, Canadian data rates are prohibitively expensive for you to send us messages from Twitter. At least you could stop adding insult to injury by constantly reminding us of this fact, and let us turn the stupid, ugly thing off.

Other tech things I wish we’d get in Canada? Hey, how about being able to see TV reruns online, via the service called ‘Hulu’. Whenever I bring up their screen from a Canadian Internet connection I see this: Message

And of course, our is only a pale shadow of, with a fraction of the selection, and we can’t use Netflix, Zappos, or Mint. Our non-HD TiVo is all but laughed at in Canada (despite the superior interface) because the HD TiVo will never be sold here. The reason is that it requires CableCard, the technology partially adopted in the US that allows you to use a simple magnetic card to connect to HD cable rather than the big, ugly boxes they have here (often bundled with ugly, hard-to-use PVRs). I’ve heard that the current version of CableCard, v. 1.0, is imperfect because it doesn’t support 2-way communication or on-screen guides.

C’mon, Santa. You finally got us the iPhone and an honest-to-goodness Apple store. What about something this year? And Blackberries don’t count, since they come from here (Besides, most folks already know that the Blackberry Storm is an Epic FAIL.) So Mr. Claus, could you see fit to get us v. 2.0 CableCard (which fixes the whole 2-way communications problem) accepted here in Canada, and that eventually we once again catch-up to the States? Failing that, Zappos, Netflix or Mint working here wouldn’t be bad, either. Whaddayasay, Santa?

Happy Solstice, and Wassail!

A Path in the Snow on the Winters Solstice

A Path in the Snow on the Winter’s Solstice

The snow is still coming down as I write this, at past midnight. It has been snowing since mid-day and shows no sign of letting up. Pam and I decided we would celebrate both this unusual (for Vancouver, anyway) weather, as well as the Winter Solstice (which I blogged about back on the 9th of this month) by going out into the weather, embracing the whiteness that is enveloping our city.
We took a route that had been cited in the Secret Lantern Society’s Winter Solstice Lantern Festival web site, from the Laurel Street overpass (that lets you go from 7th Avenue all the way down to the False Creek seawall). The scene was one of those magical winter nights, when everything is transformed by the falling snow and Christmas lights:
David in the False Creek Snow

David in the False Creek Snow

Marina at False Creek With Seasonal Lighting

Marina at False Creek With Seasonal Lighting

At the end of our walk, we ended up joining some of the other Solstice Celebrants on Granville Island. Here’s a video that I took of some of our trip. The Flip camera did a fair job with the dim light. I exported the video, converted it to DV format and edited it in iMovie:

We returned home to a feast of roast chicken (I had roasted it just before we left), mashed yams and cabbage cooked with double-smoked sausage. We were hungry, and tired, but the food and a little red wine hit the spot.
The only thing we didn’t have was actual Wassail, but I did find a recipe online at The Accidental Hedonist:

2 pints and 1/4 cup brown ale (winter ale and scottish ale will also suffice)
3-4 cinnamon sticks
4 cloves
Zest from 1/2 lemon
4 apples
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 cup port
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground all spice
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large sauce pan, pour in 2 pints of ale. Add the cinnamon sticks, lemon zest and cloves and bring to a simmer over low heat.

Take an apple, and score it with a knife around the circumference of the apple. Place in a baking dish. Repeat this step for all of the apples. Cover with one cup of brown sugar, 1/4 cup of ale, and all of the port. Cover baking dish and place in oven, cooking for 30 minutes.

While apples are baking, place remaining sugar and spices into the sauce pan, ensuring it’s well mixed.

When apples are done baking, place entire contents of baking dish into sauce pan. Allow to cook over a low heat for another 30-40 minutes.

Serve hot, one-two ladles into your favorite mug.

Serves 6-8

Here’s to the beginning of Winter, but at the same time, the start of the Earth’s journey back to longer days ahead of us.

Happy Birthday, Ludwig Van!

Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto

Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, Op. 73 (excerpt)

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Today would have been Ludwig van Beethoven’s 238th birthday. Even though he only lived to the age of 56,  a lifetime of 238 years would have been fine with me, if he could have kept writing music.

The piece and excerpt above are from his Fifth Piano Concerto, sometimes called the ‘Emperor’ Concerto, which he wrote between 1808 and 1809 for the Archduke Rudolph of Austria. This opening, no matter how many times I hear it, is always fascinating. To begin the piece with these big, loud chords, with the strands of what sounds like a free improvisation strung from column to column until it finally takes off, like a car shifting into drive, is such a fantastic idea, and so arresting, that I’d be hard-pressed to come up with many other pieces of music that are both as startling and ultimately satisfying…and not written by the same guy.

Here’s to one of the greatest, 238 years later, still shouting beauty.

A View with a Room

Photo By Derek Miller

Photo By Derek Miller

Last week’s Best of 604 Awards, a celebration and awards ceremony that brought out many of the local blogging community, confirmed my theory that Vancouver is becoming a key center of what’s being now generally called ‘Social Media‘*. I’m going to write a much longer and more complete posting on why I think this is the case, why the conditions here are so favorable for this movement and activities and how well they mesh with our lives, but one clear reason for the social media community being so close-knit and active in Vancouver is some very strong and charismatic leaders like Miss 604, who planned and hosted the event. Many thanks to her and those who helped and sponsored the affair. Pam and I really enjoyed ourselves, and I was thrilled to see so many people who I knew (and read) be recognized for their efforts by their peers and readers. Like many successful fêtes in this town (like the Fringe Festival, Film Festival, BarCamp, the Fireworks Competition, etc.), it will surely become an annual event.

Another Business Using Social Media

It hasn’t taken very long for companies (both large and small) to pick up on the marketing potential of social media, and many of my friends and fellow bloggers now make their living helping to bring their clients up to speed on the rapidly changing and growing opportunities for making use of blogging and other online ‘conduits’. Some of them clearly ‘get it’. In fact, one of the categories of the Best of 604 awards was the category of ‘Best Company Blog’, and this past fall’s Molson Brew 2.0 event showed that even large corporations can indeed be very savvy regarding this new medium. Case in point:

The Opus Hotel in Yaletown

High Tech Companies, Marketing Shops, and Large Breweries aren’t the only companies blogging.  Vancouver has some great hotels, and one of them, the Opus Hotel, has a blog.  How did I know about that? The Opus Hotel is also on Twitter, the microblogging platform. What’s more, they posted a ‘tweet’ of their blog post about one of their guest’s reactions to staying in their rooms. The ‘review’ (whether it is the real thing or not) is not only laugh-out-loud hysterical, but I also think it’s a brilliant piece of marketing and wonderful use of a blog to talk about their business with customers.  While I’ve not stayed at the Opus Hotel and haven’t even been to their well-known bar or equally well-known restaurant Elixir, I have to say that this piqued my curiousity.

*For those who aren’t familiar with the term, Social Media include blogs, micro-blogs like Twitter, social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace, and even web sites made up of contributions by their members like YouTube and Flickr. The Wikipedia article sums up Social Media well, and I particularly liked this sentence: “Social media depend on interactions between people as the discussion and integration of words to build shared-meaning, using technology as a conduit.”