Happy Thanksgiving to the US

While here in Canada we celebrated our Thanksgiving back on October 12th, this one is ‘the big one’ that we hear about from the South. With that in mind, I thought I’d send a little bit of Beethovenian Good Will (by way of the Muppets) your way, my American friends and family:

(Thanks to Brenda Cadman of October 17 Media for finding this. )

I haven’t been blogging much this month (maybe it’s the rain — 22 days of it this month!, maybe it’s the time of year — very busy). I will make a serious effort to get something more substantial here this coming week. In the meantime…

Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!

Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss for the whole world!

My Brother Hits the Big 10K (Patent, that is)

I got an email from my brother, that a patent that he was one of the four researchers working on (and now, awarded) turned out to be the 10,000th patent by his company, Microsoft.

I had visions of streamers, party hats and the like, but his boss at the time, one of the other people on the team, ended up getting most of the attention. I guess that’s how the media covers things. There was some CNET coverage which only referred to my brother as a ‘colleague’ (Boo, Hiss!) and this press release from Microsoft itself which mentions him in a capsule area, but only because he was also the co-recipient (with the same boss again) of the 5,000th patent. (How crazy a coincidence is that?)

This patent (10,000) was for a User Interface idea for Microsoft’s ‘Surface’ computer, which I’ve actually written about in my other blog. According to the Microsoft press release, the patent:

…applies to surface computing technology and outlines how users can place real objects – anything from cell phones to their own fingers – on the computer’s tablelike display and the computer will automatically identify the objects and track their position, orientation and motion. This allows the objects to be associated with data or media, like a specific collection of music or photos.

The really big coincidence is that this past week, at the Interaction Design Association’s IXD09 Conference that I attended this past week in here in Vancouver, there was indeed a Surface Computer from Microsoft (along with the Project Manager for that product, Joe Fletcher), and we placed our badges on the computer, which recognized us by our 3D Barcode or QR Code on the back of the badge (which I’ve scanned here):

Here's the badge, with a 3D barcode

Here’s the back of the badge, with a 3D barcode, These codes are pretty common in Japan where cell phone users use them to direct them to web pages on their phones.

When the badge was ‘recognized’ by the Surface, we could connect to another user who placed their badge on the computer by dragging from one badge to the other with our fingers, prompting the computer to send an ‘I want to connect to you’ message on the IXD09 web site. Kind of silly, when you think of it, since you were usually right in front of the person you supposedly wanted to connect with, but it was a fun demo, all the same. The strange sensation of seeing my badge sprout extra graphics under it when placed on the glass coffee table computer was like a real world version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with cartoon or 2D elements seeming to exist seamlessly and interact with the real things around them. Now, knowing that it was my brother’s patent that was behind this piece of techno-magic makes it even cooler.

So, I hope he at least gets a T-Shirt or something ( Maybe it could say, “I Got Microsoft its 5,000 and 10,000th Patents and All I Got Was This T-Shirt”). Maybe his own Surface Computer?  C’mon Microsoft, the guy(s) who hit the 5 and 10K mark for you in the Intellectual Property race deserve more than a press release!

Update: Happy to see that ZDNet did a better job recognizing his contribution!

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 filmreference.com 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.

Dr Atomic in Vancouver

A couple of weekends ago, Pam and I, as part of an early holiday gift from my parents, went to a performance with them at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  Well, not exactly. What we did do, was see a production, by the Met live, in downtown Vancouver, just as they were viewing the same production in Baltimore. This is actually a bit of technological magic that I never expected to see work so well, and certainly not so close to home.

Believe it or not, once a month or so, the New York Metropolitan Opera broadcasts live performances, via High Definition video and CD-quality multichannel sound, to a satellite, which then beams them down to movie theatres all across North America, including a couple here in Vancouver (the Scotiabank Paramount theatre on Burrard, as well as one in North Vancouver). I’ve since learned that the Toronto Ballet is doing much the same with some of their performances of the Nutcracker.

So on that Saturday morning, at 10:00 AM (because it’s live, and in New York City it’s 1PM in the afternoon, the perfect time for a matinee), we saw Doctor Atomic, the new opera about Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project by American composer John Adams.

Bear in mind that although it is pretty amazing that you can do this sort of thing at all, the fact that it’s easy is even more impressive. Of course, I could buy tickets online and have them charged directly to my Bank Account via Interac (they were a little less than $25 apiece). There were no lines that morning at the ScotiaBank Theatre. The broadcast was being shown in two theatres, and one was nearly full, so Pam and I opted for the second, smaller theatre, and got very, very good seats, the kind you could never get in New York.  If you were going to actually attend the same performance in New York, $25 would probably not cover the parking, much less your actual theatre tickets for even standing room, not even counting the plane fare, hotel and meals…etc.

Before the production started, the movie screen showed the inside of the Met in Lincoln Center. I’ve been there a couple of times, so it was fascinating to see it again, live, with audience members either in their seats or arriving, the famous chandeliers all in the down position (they get pulled up just before the show is about to start),  from the other end of the continent.

After a moment’s introduction from backstage by Susan Graham, the host of the broadcast, the camera cuts to the main technical director telling the conductor that it’s time for the performance to start.

The opera?  The first act was a little slow, dramatically, but the music was superb. I think it’s one of the composer’s best scores. The aria on words of John Donne (his Holy Sonnet XIV) at the end of the first act is brilliant:

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason yhour viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you, and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

I also was struck by the beauty of Adams’ orchestration and his ear for brilliant sonorities, which I’d come to know from his earlier work (and one of my favourite orchestral pieces) Harmonielehrer, a sort of three-movement symphonic salute to to romantic music of the late 19th and early 20th century. The ending of the opera is dramatically shattering, with an extremely intense countdown to the brilliant flash of the first atomic bomb test, the moment when Oppenheimer and his coworkers saw that the human race now, for the first time in history, had the power to destroy themselves and the planet, a burden that we all bear to this day.

As we listened to the music and saw the singers on stage, we also saw subtitles, so we didn’t have to wonder what they were singing. There was also an excellent bit of documentary and interview with the composer and some of the performers (and I kept feeling like they should be left alone to relax a bit after a half hour of straight singing rather than be badgered in their stage makeup by Ms. Graham!)

After the performance, I talked to my parents by phone. After all, we had all just been to the same performance together, and I wanted to see how they liked it. They told me that my cousin in Detroit had actually also been to the same performance in her town, and talked to them by cell phone during intermission. Score another one for telecommunications technology. I guess the next step will be to recreate the Met holographically for us in Vancouver, and after that, it’s ‘beam me to Lincoln Center, Scotty’.

A Life In Motion

One of the reasons that I haven’t been posting as often this month as last month, is that it seems that I’m always in town, busy attending/watching/participating in something. You’d think that being on the job hunt and not tied down with a 9-to-5 commitment would mean that I have tons of free time to spend on blogging, cleaning up my office, and doing all of those other ‘things I’d do if I had time’. No such luck.  It seems my calendar’s clutter increases to fill the allotted time. I do want to at least mention, and provide a snapshot or perhaps a snippet of video (because I can) of some of what’s been going on for the past 2 1/2 weeks or so:

September 13th: To celebrate my (and my brother’s) birthday, we took a weekend trip down to visit him and the rest of the family down in Bellevue, Washington. This included a trip to the Sculpture Park:

At the Seattle Sculpture Park

At the Seattle Sculpture Park

and a celebratory Dinner out at Wild Ginger, a favourite Seattle restaurant of theirs:

OK, so I got a little silly, but a birthday candle is just asking to be played with.

OK, I got a little silly, but a Birthday Candle is just asking to be played with.

September 16th: I had lunch with a friend and attended the Molson Brew 2.0 event, which I had written about a little earlier.

September 17th: Met with several people during the day and attended Launch Party 5 at UnWined.

Imbibing and meeting Startups at Launch Party 5

Imbibing and meeting Startups at Launch Party

September 20th: Attended BarCampBankBC, a real eye-opener about the concerns of the people in the Banking and Credit Union business (Questions included: “If increasingly, everybody does most of their banking online or at ATMs, what’s the new design/experience of a Bank branch supposed to be?” ):

A session at BarCampBankBC

A session at BarCampBankBC

September 21: Made it to the first Annual Canary Derby in Gastown, a fundraising race of soapbox-style racers, mainly to cheer on the team of Webnames, who regardless if they won or not (they didn’t), still had the classiest looking race car of the day. Here’s one of the earlier trials that they won:

Since that was moving pretty fast, here’s what the car looked like standing still:

The Webnames.ca entry in the 2008 Canary Soapbox Derby in Gastown

The Webnames.ca entry in the 2008 Canary Soapbox Derby in Gastown

(Note: The child at the wheel in this shot is not the driver in the race)
September 23: Thanks to the generosity of a dear friend, Pam and I were able to get to one of the Pre-Season games of the Cannucks. They were playing Edmunton, and despite that team’s (apparently well-known) speed, the Cannucks won! Here’s a snippet:

September 26: The Party for BarCampVancouver 2008, the yearly unconference, took place at Workspace. This year I helped out in the planning as well as the food prep (and even played bartender a bit).

September 27:We lucked out, and the weather was gorgeous, which helped since BarCamp was held on Granville Island, at 3 separate locations including the Revue Stage, Emily Carr University, and the Playwright’s Theatre. I had prepared a talk on Ubiquity, the fascinating Firefox plugin that extends some of the ideas about interacting with information on the Internet. Unfortunately, I was bumped because the contract for the room had us there until 5PM, not 5:30 as we had been led to believe. Moral of the story: Never reschedule your session to what you think is a better time (originally I was early in the morning and opposite several other sessions that I wanted to attend myself!) I am working on reformatting the presentation and slides so that I can put them online on my other blog and will try and let folks know when it’s done. Here’s me pitching my ill-fated presentation:

Making my pitch for a presentation on Ubiquity at BarCamp Vancouver 2008

Making my pitch for a presentation on Ubiquity at BarCamp Vancouver 2008

September 28: Word on the Street, the Annual festival of books, writers and other things literary took place downtown, around the library. Pam and I managed to make a talk by the entertaining and inspiring Colin Moorhouse, a freelance speechwriter that Pam had managed to hear at a BC Editors Meeting last year.

That brings me to today. I nearly feel out of breath just recounting this. And it doesn’t include a couple of job interviews, meetings with friends and colleagues, and the usual day-to-day stuff. It has been a busy month, to say the least.

I think that what’s been going on is a gradual accrual of yearly events. We noticed a couple of years ago that there seems to be a tacit agreement that in Vancouver, anything worth doing is worth doing annually. Our year is getting busier, which is probably OK, but soon we’ll have to pick and choose what we can or cannot make and say instead that we’ll catch whatever we miss ‘next year’.