Thursday, July 29, 2010

Can zombies catch?

There are four softball fields next to one another on the corner of campus where we play. The one furthest from the University is right by a zombie graveyard. Surprising, but true nonetheless. Within this fenced off square of ground, a series of low-level orange lamps glow eerily out of the grass and are clustered irregularly together like a mismash of tombstones in an old graveyard. Zombies, I tell you. Perhaps we should have asked if they could help us field.

The team we were playing had opted for the unfair advantage of matching jerseys. They also liked to keep the catcher busy by not bothering to attempt to hit the first two pitches but twacking the third one beyond all outfielders. It was dirty play.

Despite this, by the end of the game we were motoring... or at least running. I even got a run! Sadly, this was not until the 7th innings so we still lost by a rather unfortunate amount. Our bold attempts made no headway with the umpire who looked up at the bright blue sky to comment how we had ten more minutes of light, max. This changed to two minutes once the other team started batting. Perhaps this was her addition to the mercy rule. Perhaps the last team she umpired for had their brains eaten.

When the optimistic call to our fielders to 'let her know when they couldn't see the ball anymore' yielded no results (unsurprising since sunset wasn't for another hour and we are masochists when it comes to the score), she let us complete the innings and then insisted we packed it in. Maybe she had heard stirrings. We picked up our bats and left.

Later rumours marked the zombie graveyard as a helicopter pad for the hospital. It doesn't sound likely.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Laptop insomnia

My computer has become a work-a-holic. If you try shutting it down, it dutifully beavers away closing all the programs, ends the operating system session and then .... boots right back up again. At some level, I admire such industriousness. At another, I fear for my files.

It then decided that sleep was over-rated. Like a small child, it tries for less than a minute and then wakes up again. This results in it getting very hot and nuking its battery. If you take the power-cord out and refuse to talk to it, it normally will go to sleep eventually but you don't know for sure until you pick it up later and see if it's become a burning hot potato.

Clearly, someone had to have words and that someone probably had to be Apple. The situation was complicated by the fact the screen was cracked .... I, uh, might have dropped it. I was concerned that if I took it into the store, they'd try to blame the current issues on me, along with the iPhone 4 antenna problems and global warming. Then I'd cry and also refuse to go to sleep like a small child. Really, it wouldn't get us anywhere.

To prevent this, I commanded "Operation Cover Up" which involved a small shop in Toronto's China town and a fixed outer screen. This was particularly good since they were able to replace just the outer glass and not the whole (undamaged) LCD. Removing the entire screen is the default way to mend MacBooks but I discovered the alternative option by finding the required part on It was a bit like Anya finding the last urn of Osiris on eBay in season six of "Buffy".

Except none of that happen and you can't prove it.

Whistling innocently, I took the (still extremely active and un-asleep) laptop into the computer shop on campus. They told me it was a circuit board problem and it could be temporarily fixed by disconnecting the camera.

The former fact was good since it was covered by my warranty and actually confirmed that this really hadn't been my fault. The latter fact was just plain weird. I opted for this temporary fix while they ordered the required part until it emerged ... that the cord marked "camera" also deactivated the wireless.

Who exactly thought this was a good idea?!

So I now have a spicy hot laptop on my knee which I try to cool off by switching the power cord in and out at intervals. All credit to the university store, however, they allowed me to take the laptop away while the new logic board was on order and said they could try and fix it within one day. They are my heroes! And the fact that I claimed I needed my laptop for work and not for role playing will never be mentioned to them.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Cat litter & cherries

Canadian Border Guard: Are you bringing any items back from the USA?

I think of the 50 kg of cat litter, 6 apricots, 4 plums, the tub of home made pesto and a device for de-stoning cherries I picked up at the supermarket.

I could have explained it:

Me: I can't find a cat litter brand I like in Canada. There's only a couple of different ones and they don't clump the pee well, so the litter becomes manky in-between cleaning the box. It's pretty nasty for my cat, so I thought I'd stock up while I was in NY. Then, my friend and I visited a farmer's market on Saturday and they were selling this gorgeous looking fruit. I really had to buy some apricots and plums. We ate about half of them but there were a few left that I thought I'd eat tonight so I chucked them in my cooler. Then we made some pesto from a whole load of basil leaves, and it just seemed a shame to say 'no' to taking some back to try. It smells really good, I think I'm going to try making it myself from now on rather than buying the little jars; they are wasteful, don't you think? And then we went to Wagmans which is a huge supermarket and they had a demonstration on this device for removing cherry stones. I really like cherries, but I hate spitting out the stones - it's kinda gross - so this solves all that. But anyway, the whole lot is only worth like $30, so it's totally not worth you spending the time listening to this huge description and .... oh, your shift ended 3 hours ago? And you're going to steal my fruit?

Or I could just go and de-stone some cherries.

Me: Nope. Not a thing.

Friday, July 23, 2010

When I grew up, I became a wizard

When I was 8 years old my images of what it was like to be 30 were different. There was a matching home on a housing estate, a permanent job, a couple of kids -- including a daughter called Adora, because I was seriously into She-Ra -- and a dog. Or maybe a dinosaur. Hey, I was flexible like that.

The reality?

(apart from maybe the dinosaur)

I spent my 30th birthday at Hogwarts.

Universal Studio's Islands of Adventure theme park in Florida recently opened "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter". This new island consisted of the main street in Hogsmead and Hogwarts castle. There was Zonko's Joke shop, Honeydukes sweet shop, The Three Broomsticks and Hogshead pubs, the post office, Dervish & Banges, butterbeer, pumpkin juice, the Hogwarts Express .... need I say more? Yes. Yes, I think I do.

Somewhat bizarrely, to reach the wizard section of the attraction, you have to walk through Jurassic Park. I skirted the pterodactyl ride and began to re-think the dinosaur idea. Crossing the bridge, we dropped down into Hogsmead village, although I did take the opportunity to turnaround and take a clearly classic photo of the "Welcome to Jurassic Park" sign right next to Hogwarts castle.

The first feature that strikes you as you walk down the street is the incredible attention to detail. The place really does appear as it is described in the books. Snow covered gabled roofs are on both sides of you, with icicles dangling from their crooked tiles. Sadly, the actual temperature was well into the 30s but this was alleviated by our first stop at a giant barrel cart selling butterbeer. Since children are known to have zero restraint, this particular version was completely non-alcoholic but it was personally approved by J. K. Rowling. It tasted like ... well, I'm not going to tell you. You will have to go and try for yourself.

We decided to risk insane crowds and eat lunch at The Three Broomsticks. This proved to be a surprisingly good decision. While we had to queue for a short time to enter the pub (not a hardship because there was so much to see), once we had ordered there were plenty of tables to sit even seven people. The displayed menu showed a moving image that panned over the dishes and our waiter was a house elf. Fortunately, he was not just wearing a tee-towel.

Basic desires met, we went on a tour of the shops. Although a primary (and completely successful) purpose was to shake even more galleons from our purses, the shops themselves were an attraction and made to look as authentic as possible. Broomsticks hung from the ceiling of Dervish & Banges, the Monster Book of Monsters rattled in a cage and model owls looked down at you from the post office shelves. The goods themselves were everything you could expect from the shops in question. Magical paraphernalia from sneakoscopes to Quidditch bats, school robes and fanged wallets could be found in Dervish & Banges, a huge display of Bertie Botts Every Flavoured Beans was in Honeydukes along with Weasly favourites such an tongue ton toffee and Zonko's held such delights as fanged frisbees and boxing telescopes. The window displays of the shops, including ones that were not "open" were also fascinating to see. Honeydukes had a ribbit-ing chocolate frog, there was a bookshop with a excessive display of Gilderoy Lockheart volumes, complete with a moving picture of the man himself, and a botany store had a large mandrake and mimbulus mimbletonia behind its glass.

After all that it was time for a pumpkin juice. I would be lying if I said there weren't insanely large queues (although the books often describe similar scenes on Hogsmead weekends). Despite this, the park got a number of important things right, including our relaxed lunch and the lack of a wait for the (clean and pleasant) toilets.

The signature ride on the island was the part-coaster, part-simulated "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey". The seats for this are on a robotic arm which swings you about in combination with sophisticated animated screens.
What, you wanted more details? Seriously, people, did you read my experiences on the 'Hello Kitty' ferris wheel? It was never going to happen. I did stand in line for it. That is a more exciting statement than you might first suppose, since the queue is part of the attraction and weaves through a series of scenes inside Hogwarts. You see Dumbledore's office, complete with a 3D hologram of the man himself who welcomes you to the school. You then pass through a corridor where portraits of the four founders are arguing over the wisdom of allowing muggles to see so much. The queue terminated in a classroom where Harry, Ron and Hermione appear (as holograms) and tell you they are going to kidnap you away from the tour Professor Bins has planned to go and see a Quidditch match. I wished there was a way to keep with the original program and ducked out to go and sit in the kids room where the first movie was playing to entertain the under 4 feet while the ride was in progress. Again, the attention to detail was beautiful. The moving portraits in particular were rather good, looking very much like the genuine article and not digital screens as they walked into each others frames.

At various times during the day, members of Beauxbatons and Durmstrang appeared to do a brief exhibit and the Hogwarts frog choir performed a few songs. Exhausted from the day, we summoned up the energy to queue one final time for Ollivanders' wand shop, who evidently had decided to cash in on the new business development in Hogsmead and moved over from Diagon Alley. Here, a group of a dozen visitors were let inside and one was picked to go through the wand selection process with Ollivander. The scene was directly from the movie with floor to ceiling wand boxes and the first two attempts by the would-be witch causing objects to break. Finally, the lights and air came up around her as a unicorn tail wand found its match.

The wand chooses the wizard....

If you were inclined, you could purchase any wand you desired from the movies, including Harry's own phoenix tail feather affair to the death eater's sticks of doom.

It was an amazing birthday with possibly my only disappointment being that I would have liked to hug Lord Voldemort, Mickey Mouse style, if he had been walking around. I did at least get to hug my friends a lot, even if their lack of red-slit eyes was a trace disappointing. So, sorry, Adora my would-be daughter, you're going to have to wait. Oh, and I might call you Voldermortaphine. It'll be great.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Felix Felicis

As I reached the bridge that separated the two sides of the Falls at Niagara, a single thought occurred to me:

"EVERYONE has read my blog and now they've poured in to sample the polygamous relationship I have with the USA border guards."

Guys, you missed the point! THIS RELATIONSHIP IS ABUSIVE.

I have crossed at Niagara at least half a dozen times and I had never seen queues so long. In both directions too. Was everyone doing U-turns so they can have a second date with the guards? Or was I in fact observing a gigantic population exchange between New York and Ontario? Perhaps everyone was trying to escape the heat in their home town. If so, boy were they going to be disappointed!

It took me over an hour to cross that bridge. Mercifully, my tourist visa was still in date, so I was able to drive straight through the border .... and into the backlog from three traffic accidents and the tail end of a police chase. I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. There was only one explanation for all this chaos:


Someone was trying to stop me reaching Florida and visiting Universal Studio's new Harry Potter theme park. I gritted my teeth; they would fail! What I needed was a way to counteract this spell, something really .... lucky. I looked down at my car's cup holder. It contained a bottle of Mountain Dew. Probably not exactly the same recipe as Felix Felicis, but it was an exciting new flavour. It would do. I took a large gulp.

Accelerating into Buffalo airport 45 minutes before my flight, I tumbled through security and skidded down the corridor to the last gate in the terminal. Success! Feeling smug, I boarded the plane ...

... along with every under-2 toddler in up-state New York and (seemingly) none of their parents.

My eyes narrowed. There was no denying that my enemies were good. The kids were cranky; perhaps they too had been queuing at the Niagara border. Perhaps they were ALL visiting Harry Potter World. Perhaps no one would notice if I chucked a few out the emergency exit.

We touched down in Atlanta just as a storm rolled in, stranding us on the tarmac for twenty minutes. Little Joey still wanted a window seat. I pondered the merits of throwing little Joey and his friends through said requested window. Would I still be able to hear their screams from the runway?

Eventually we pulled up to Gate A36; out of 36. My connecting flight was at D36.... out of 36.

.... FML.

I arrived, out of breath, for the last boarding call and tumbled into my seat as the doors slammed shut. This allowed our plane to ... drive a few feet along the tarmac to the back of a line behind twenty other planes. I was in the front row, so my bag (containing a second book), was placed in the overhead bins. I finished my first book. We waited. I scowled at a small child in the row next to me who had a picture book. It began to cry.

When we finally landed in Gainesville, it was after midnight and the rental car place had closed for the day.

There was no doubt about it, the anti-muggle charms were good. But I was now so close .... I just had to find a way to my friend's house. It was late for the small college town, but perhaps a taxi would show up eventually or ...


I looked up from my examination of my iPhone (seriously, there had to be an app for my problems) to see one of my friends standing in the arrivals lounge, car keys in hand. I blinked. Then looked down at the empty Mountain Dew bottle still clutched in my hand. Perhaps I should keep this.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Summer in Toronto is hot, humid and unpleasant. No, before you ask, I don't recall Florida being anything but idyllically tropical and you're ALL WRONG if you heard me say otherwise.

Besides, my apartment down south had air conditioning.

This apartment has underfloor heating which is great for winters, but doesn't even attempt to multi-task as a cooler during the summer. The one saving grace is that I have a basement. While completely uninhabitable when the snow closes in, this semi-underground room has now become the only remotely habitable place in the house. I celebrated by furnishing it with a futon.

The first night I slept down there, I was insomniacal from jet-lag and sat up reading for a couple of hours (Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters, in case anyone was interested). By the time I put my book down, I had developed a headache. I am prone to this particular ailment and wouldn't normally have thought anything of it except that (a) it was irritating and (b) I was relaxing in a cool room and there was just no call for it. No call at all.

Annoyed, I rolled over and tried to ignore it; a popular strategy of mine that has never once worked. Still, statistics can be manipulated and .... then a thought occurred to me. The basement was also the location of the boiler. What if I had a headache due to carbon monoxide? WHAT IF I WOKE UP DEAD TOMORROW MORNING?!

No, there is nothing wrong with that statement.

There wasn't really any good evidence to support this idea. Said boiler had been put in by the landlord new in the last year and the basement bedroom actually had a window, albeit a small one, which was open. Still, once you get a thought like that into your head it's kinda impossible to shift. Especially because if it was carbon monoxide and you did snuff it, you'd feel pretty stupid at the Pearly Gates of Heaven.

Saint Peter: I'm sorry my child, you died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Me: Ah, I thought that might happen.
Saint Peter
: ........ WTF? 100 years in Purgatory for being too stupid to enter Heaven.

Yeah, it'd be embarrassing. So I grabbed my pillow and went up to my sweltering bedroom. Then I realised the cat was still in the basement.

Me: Tallis~!
Cat: Meow?
Me: We're sleeping up here now.
Cat: ....... meow?!

Which I think roughly translated as: 'You've got to be kidding?! You do realise the basement is the only habitable place in this sauna? YOU DO REALISE FUR IS STILL IN FOR ME?' No one slept well that night.

The following evening saw me driving over to Canadian Tire (a Walmart equivalent) to hunt for CO detectors. There was too much choice but in the end I opted for a mid-priced one that showed a child sleeping peacefully on the box. At least, I hoped the little brat was asleep and it wasn't a promise for how much a parent could save on college fees.

Returning home, I plugged it into the wall. It flashed green. A likely story. I pressed the 'test' button. It emitted a sound that sent the cat fleeing from the room to produce a mournful yowl from the top of the stairs. The detector then turned back to green again. Hmm. I rescued the cat and eyed it for a few more minutes. So far, nothing. Perhaps we were good after all. Or perhaps I should wallpaper the whole bedroom with detectors. Statistically, one is likely to fail and sound its alarm. THEN SEE IF YOU CALL ME PARANOID.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The fast & the furious

Using stray planks of wood, a skateboard and once an old baby bathtub, a series of prototypes for a Formula 1 racing car were developed in a small town just outside Oxford. Admittedly these early models lacked a few of the later luxuries such as ... breaks ... or indeed, steering. The engine also consisted of a small seven year old girl, as indeed did the unfortunate driver. None of this, however, stopped said prototype being test run on every street in the housing estate with quite genuinely zero thoughts for the consequences.

Nowadays our parents would probably be arrested by Social Services for allowing small hands near exposed, probably tetanus-covered, nails. Back then, it merely added a point of interest to the dinner time conversation.

At some point in the intervening years, go-karting lost its intense appeal. I think it was around the time I acquired a driver's license. So quite sometime had passed between my last outing in a kart/bathtub and the one I was about to have at San Diego's indoor kart racing track. I was in California for a computer code development meeting and this was how our group had decided to interpret the scheduled item "benchmarking". There were eight of us racing, one of whom had been before but the rest of us had a similar collection of 7 year old memories to work with. Then there were the two other guys who joined us, both of whom brought their own helmets and one who also brought his own whiplash support. I eyed the kart and my concept of 'what's the worst that can happen?' rose several notches.

The karts themselves had only two pedals -- stop and go -- and could reach speeds of up to 40 mph. Although bumping into both the barriers and other karts was a frequent occurrence, you were not allowed to do the latter on purpose.

Perhaps in the same way that running a race is fun even though you walk everyday, kart racing turned out to be great. The end results revealed that I had a much higher regard for life than anyone else at this conference, since they all out stripped me by five laps. This was fine though; they had done all the code development work so if it was only me left to run the simulations and reap MEEEEELLLLLIONS of research papers, well what could you do?

At the end, I came in last with a fastest lap time of 49.8 seconds. The top two racers were our new friends with their own helmets who got 30.9s and 31.4s respectively. Our final view was of them speeding out of the car park ... in their smart car. Suddenly, much became clear.