Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Deathday Anniversary

D. H. Lawrence wrote that "Every year you pass an anniversary unaware - the anniversary of your own death." Whoa!

I heard this in the closing remarks of the appendix of the (audio)book "Deep Survival" by Laurence Gonzales.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Going to Hell

I haven't always been an atheist. There was a time when I was young when I cried myself to sleep because I was so scared about going to Hell. Belief in Hell is, by definition, theist. Not certain where I got such an impression of Hell, but I have a hunch. My family joined the Velvet Hills Baptist Church. In fact, my dad helped build the... umm, building. The preachers visited the Sunday-school classes and told us their stories. Great story-tellers; they were extremely impassioned.

On Sunday mornings, my dad used to have the TV or radio tuned into religious shows while he was milling around, working on the house; so one would think my dad a religious man.

I don't think I ever bought into that view of my dad. One day my mom told me that my dad didn't believe in God. I think I found that difficult to comprehend, but I'm glad that seed was planted. That singular event might have opened my mind just a crack to the possibility.

You see, somewhere along the line I switched. I stopped believing in God.

The rock-opera Jesus Christ Superstar has always been a fixture in my family. My parents used to play the soundtrack on our stereo. Later, we owned the video and watched it many times. That movie left me with the impression that Jesus was probably just a cool guy. Except for the end of the movie, where the song "Jesus Christ Superstar" goes rather Broadway, there is nothing in the movie that suggest Jesus was the son of God. No miracles, divine intervention... nothing. In my view, it told the story of a sociological phenomenon.

At some point, I learned about the theory of evolution. I guess it was grade 10 when I first heard about it. It was a feeble introduction in science class; we watched a video that I don't think I really understood. No class discussion. I'm not sure if our teacher didn't believe in it, or if was too much of a hot-button topic to be worth dwelling on. Regardless, over the next 10 years or so, I would come to respect that theory a great deal. To me, it's one of the most profound ideas ever conceived.

I also recall thinking that if there really was a god, he'd be OK with the way I live my life. I am nice to people, and give a lot of thought to the way the world works.

Today, I'm pretty public about the fact that I am atheist. The only caveat is that I am technically agnostic. I am a scientist in the sense that I believe we should look to explain our world through natural causes, not super-natural causes. The God hypothesis is unfalsifiable in that there is no natural observation that can disprove the existence of God. So, that's why I hope that if there is a God, he's understanding about people like me.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Recursion tutorial

To learn about recursion, click here.

Recycling tautology

In the washrooms on the campus of the University of Waterloo, all the paper-towel dispensers have been replaced with ones that look like this...

The front face of each unit displays the following environmental feel-good message:

Hmm... isn't EVERYTHING made of "up to 100% post-consumer material"? I've never heard of something being made out of more than 100% of anything. Rather than an upper-bound on the amount of recycling, wouldn't a lower-bound be more informative? For example, they could use zero recycled material, and still claim that they use "up to 100% post-consumer material".

On the more positive side, perhaps the paper-towels are entirely made of recycled material, but they wish to point out that a large portion of it comes from post-consumer material (that would have been garbage), as opposed to materials recycled from factories, etc.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Alone with the kids: Day 2 and 3

Lauchy woke up around 5:00am, but I shoved the soother into his mouth and laid him back down. He slept until 6:00am. That's late enough. Heather also got up at that time. Addie was about 20 minutes later.

8:30 : Off to my dad's house. Lauchy looked like he might fall asleep on the way there. So when we were almost there and he wasn't asleep yet, I added a 15-minute loop to the drive; it worked. He slept for about 45 minutes in total. Diane (my step-mother) did a great job of looking after him while I helped my dad with his computer. The girls were extremely well-behaved. After helping my dad, I came into the kitchen and found them glued to a Spiderman cartoon.

11:15 : Left papa-John's place and headed home. While driving on Alexandra street (almost home), Addie said "Hey dad, there's a sweater that looks like Lauchy's on that tree." I gave one of those "That's nice" responses. But a few seconds later it dawned on me that it just might be Lauchy's sweater. I hadn't noticed it missing, but couldn't recall seeing it in the last day or so. We HAD walked by there with it the day before. In fact, as I turned the van around I remembered that I had perched it on the stroller behind Lauchy, and that he had reached behind and pulled it onto his lap. Objects in that category invariably end up on the ground. Blankets (and apparently sweaters/fleece jackets) are silent when they fall, and it's remarkably easy to walk over them without noticing. That must have been what happened, because - sure enough - it was Lauchy's fleece jacket. Thanks Addie!

Yadda-yadda... luckily for you, I've grown weary of the hour-by-hour log. Instead, I'll just give the highlights.

Heather and Addie are in a phase where they like to put water under the swings to make mud in the patches of dirt where the grass is warn off. I got a cute video of Lauchlan walking in the mud, so I edited it, added music, and uploaded it to YouTube. Here it is.

We had a bonfire tonight, after Lauchy went to bed. The girls seemed more interested in the marshmallows than the fire itself. After 15 minutes, I was sitting by the fire alone, and the girls were throwing stuff over the fence at the neighbours kids. Ahhh, on second thought, I'm pretty proud of them.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

FutureShop extended warranty pulls through

FutureShop has recently received some bad press on my blog. Well, I have some good news. Recall that I took a camera back because the lens wouldn't deploy anymore. That camera was purchased with an extended warranty. FutureShop fixed the camera at no cost. It seems that they replaced the entire lens housing. We are now a two-Canon family. Thank you FutureShop. I'll never doubt you again. Well, I probably will... but still, thanks.

Alone with the kids: Day 1

Warning: This is an extremely dull blog post, and should only be read if you REALLY DO care about how my 1st day went while Trish is away.

OK, if you've made it this far, then buckle your seatbelts and put on your bib. It's daddy time!

Trish left last night around 8pm. Here is what we did on the first day.

midnight-3am : The 3 kids tag-teamed keeping me awake. I was up 6 or 7 times, and probably didn't sleep for more than a half-hour at any one time.

3:00 - 5:30 : Slept, finally. Lauchy awoke at 5:30, his usual time. I took him to the basement so that Heather and Addie wouldn't wake up.

6:45 : After watching 3 rounds of the early news, Heather awoke, followed shortly by Addie. Gave Lauchy Advil.

7:45 : Put Lauchy down for a nap. He needs it, even if it's only a short one.

8:30 : Sharon, our bi-weekly cleaning lady, arrived.

8:45 : Lauchy is awake.

9:00 : Off to the new Early Years Centre (161 Roger Street). A quick stop a Tim Horton's on the way.

10:15 : Left EYC. Rob called as I was putting the kids in the van. We decided to go the the Allen street park. Right after hanging up the phone, I heard Greg's voice. He was just getting his boys out of the bike trailer. He said that Bill and Connell were on their way to the EYC too. Oh well.

10:30-11:45 : Allen street park. Snacks and play.

12:00 : Home for lunch.

12:30 : Lauchy down for his nap. He sure seemed tired. Gave him more Advil before putting him down.

12:45 - 2:00 : Girls watched TV while I had a nap on the couch.

2:10 - 2:30 : Heather had a freak-out for no apparent reason. It started because I offered her a snack, but she wanted something else. Then, she complained of being too warm... sitting in the sun with a long-sleeved shirt. Unfortunately, she lost her movie-treats privilege; tonight is (moods willing) family movie night.

2:30 - 3:00 : Girls played nicely in the backyard while Lauchy finished his nap.

3:00 - 4:30 : Drove to FutureShop to pick up fixed camera. Also went to Rogers Video to get a movie for later on. It was tricky selecting a movie that Heather, Addie and I all agreed on (yes, I give myself a vote in these things), but we decided on Cars.

4:30 - 6:30 : Dinner at Greg's. Two words: utter chaos. In the middle of it all, Trish called my cell phone. Evidently, their back-woods camping adventure includes cell-phone reception. The conversation was difficult with all the commotion of trying to jam hot-dogs down the throats of our herd of kids. But we agreed that Trish would check her voice-mail every day around 5pm, to see if there were any EMERGENCIES (Tricia's emphasis).

6:30 - 7:00 : Drove home, gave Lauchy a quick bath, and put him to bed. Of course, more Advil.

7:00 - 9:00 : Watched the movie with Heather and Addie. Two hours long, indeed. Poor Addie couldn't wait for the movie to finish.

9:15 - 11:30 : I tidied up, wrote (am writing) blogs, and watched online videos about how to write applications for the iPhone.

One last story. While driving to the Early Years Centre, I heard a screeching of car tires, and saw a cloud of dust. As we drove by, I saw a hedge with a car-sized swath plowed over, and a muscle car on the lawn. I guess the car went out of control and jumped the curb. I don't think anyone was hurt, but an hour or so later (as we returned from the Early Years Centre), we saw 4 or 5 police cars on the scene. Not sure what the deal was.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Thanks FutureShop

Our Canon camera bit the dust during out family camping trip this year; the lens wouldn't come out, probably because of sand in the gears. We bought it from FutureShop, and also got one of those extended warranties. So, FutureShop has it right now, and hopefully they'll fix it.

In the meantime, though, Trish and I decided that it was time for us each to have our own digital cameras. This decision was inspired by our friends Rob and Shannon; they each have their own. Moreover, Rob's camera is waterproof to a depth of 3 metres. Since I tend to keep my camera in my pocket when on trips, it is more susceptible to getting dirt in the gears, so I wanted a waterproof camera too.

Back to FutureShop. My friend's waterproof camera is an Olympus. So, I decided by buy the Olympus Stylus Tough 6000 camera. The only one in stock was an "open box", previously sold and returned. But it was discounted, so I bought it.

Then the trouble began.

The first problem: the box was missing the USB cable, so I couldn't hook it up to my computer. My wife raced back to FutureShop to get the cable. Not great, but we did it.

Next problem: after she got back, I realized that the box was also missing the battery charger and the software. The software I can do without, but I NEED the battery charger. I called them the next day and made it clear that it was there turn to bring it to ME. They couriered a charger to me... it arrived the next day. Great, FutureShop has redeemed itself.

Not quite. It was the wrong charger. I called them again and said to the store manager that we needed to find a resolution soon. She suggested that I return the camera since they don't have those chargers.

At this point, I was torn. I actually ordered a third-party charger online. But after checking out Rob's camera, I was utterly disappointed. One of the things that bugged me most about my Olympus was its start-up time. It took over 3 seconds to be ready to take a picture. I figured that all Olympus cameras must have the same issue. However, I tried Rob's camera, and it started in less than a second!! I decided that the FutureShop manager was right.

So, I returned the camera and the misfit charger.

I then walked across the street to Henry's and dropped a wad of cash on a Canon Powershot D10. It turns on in much less than a second. Also waterproof. I love it!

Woman's Intuition

I'm always floored by the capabilities of Tricia's intuition. It's not magic. Just an amazing ability to use a vast amount of information to -- subconsciously -- arrive at a conclusion.

Case in point: Yesterday morning she noticed that our double stroller/bike trailer was missing off our front porch (Already she's way ahead of me; I wouldn't have noticed that until the next time I went to use it). The situation was similar to what happened to our friends about a month earlier. Luckily, a neighbourhood character (I'll call him "Freddy") located the stolen stroller and returned it to the family. He was awarded $20 for his efforts.

Our missing stroller was bugging Tricia all day yesterday. She filed a police report, and posted a blog entry. After dinner, we were outside with the kids, and she was pacing around. She told me she wanted to go see Freddy. I must admit, the idea seemed irrational to me. I asked her "What do you hope to accomplish?" Her answer, "I don't know." Having witnessed the genius of her intuition in the past, I agreed that she should pay Freddy a visit. She walked down our block, and disappeared around the corner.

Fifteen minutes later, I saw her coming back down the street, this time pushing a double-stroller and accompanied by Freddy. I was dumbfounded. Freddy explained how he found the stroller abandoned in the bushes in a nearby playground. He's been known to find bikes and take them to the police station (so he tells us), so he took the stroller to his house. We gave him his $20 finder's fee, and listened to a few more of his heroic tales about taking bikes to the police station, and how the guy that stole the last stroller just finished a 2-week stint in jail.

After he left, Tricia said, "I don't buy it one bit." I, too, was slightly skeptical, but hearing Tricia's side of the story really tipped the scales for me.

She walked to Freddy's house, and into his backyard. He refurbishes and sells used bikes, so the gate to his backyard is more like the storefront to a junkyard. And there was our stroller, sitting in the middle of his yard. Tricia said, "That's my stroller!" I'm not sure what happened then, but it seems to me that Freddy told about how he found our stroller, and our friend's stroller, and how they gave him $20 for finding it. Tricia didn't have any money with her, so Freddy accompanied her for the walk back to our house. As they left Freddy's house, he yelled across the street to a woman, "Sorry, the stroller's already gone." Was he about to SELL our stroller? Wait a minute. Is this the guy who finds bikes and takes them to the police station? And he's preparing to turn over our stroller less than 12 hours after it was noticed missing?!?

Very fishy. Anyway, that's how Tricia managed to locate our stroller.

I could chalk it up to luck... simply being in the right place at the right time. Such coincidences are bound to happen from time to time. Perhaps a better explanation is that Tricia, without knowing it, integrated a collection of subtle leads to infer that the best place to start looking was at Freddy's. She was right, and I am in awe of her astounding intuitive intelligence.

As an epilogue, let me make it perfectly clear that I do NOT equate intuition with ESP, clairvoyance, divine intervention, or any other paranormal phenomena. The vast majority of what goes on inside our brains is below our conscious awareness. Information processing happens on many levels, and our consciousness is really only one layer on top of all that. Everyone has intuition, but some seem to be better than others. Moreover, some are more willing to listen to their intuition.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Asking "Why?" in biology

I was talking to a colleague this morning about genetics and the genetic code. I asked him why it used only 20 of the amino acids, when there are many, many more that could be used. His response was interesting... he said,

"Why"-questions don't usually have satisfactory answers in biology.

As it turns out, it's the why-questions that interest me the most. I remember taking genetics back during my undergrad days, and being floored by how the cell does what it does. All those membranes, substances and molecules moving to the right place at the right time. The prof and textbook frequently used personification to describe the cell, as if it had its own intelligence and will. But it's just a machine! Bridging THAT gap is what interests me.

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

While the family's away, daddy works his butt off

Trish and the kids are at a friend's cottage for a few days. So I'm bachen' it. What that really means is that I have a list of handyman around-the-house jobs that are too noisy to do while the kids are in bed.

Today I finished putting a shelf into the cabinet of our bathroom vanity. To be fair, the piece of wood for the shelf came with the vanity. All I had to do was install it. Sounds simple, but I had to use my jigsaw to cut out a slot for the sink drainpipe, as well as little notches in the back for the hot and cold water hoses. The cut-out was about 3/4 the way through the shelf, so I had to screw a few 2x2s into the back wall to support the back of the shelf. Here is a picture.

A larger project was the linen closet. Years ago, we removed a pantry from our kitchen, but kept the tongue-in-groove cedar panelling that lined the pantry. We decided to use it to line the shelves in the linen closet. It wasn't easy, but it also wasn't that hard. I also re-used the nice wooden shelves and shelf supports from the pantry. It looks pretty nice, though it'll look much better once we paint the rest of the closet.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Camping panorama

Being an image-processing nerd, I made sure I took a high-resolution set of pictures of our campsite so that I could make a high-quality panorama. I took about 35 photos in total, at 3 different levels (horizontal, looking upward, and looking downward). Then I used a piece of software from a professor at UBC named David Lowe to create the panorama. The program is called AutoStitch, and runs on Microsoft Windows (luckily I keep a Windows machine around for just such an occasion).

Below is a small version of the panorama, but you can see a larger version here.

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It's official -- Associate Professor with tenure

Today, I found this letter in my mailbox from David Johnston, the president of the University of Waterloo. It reads,

This letter is to confirm that your appointment as an Associate Professor with tenure will take effect on July 1, 2009.

I congratulate you on what you have accomplished. I also express warm thanks for the important contribution you are making to the life and reputation of our University and to higher education and research more generally. I wish you continued success and satisfaction here.

It's quite a different sentiment from this tenure denial letter dated Feb. 26, 2009.

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Family Camping

For the second year in a row, 7 families camped for a week at a group campsite in Pinery Provincial Park. Here are some highlights (and lowlights).

We saw very little sun throughout the week. It rained quite hard at times. The tarps over our kitchen area created a semi-dry area.
Here we see one of the leaks, and the basin to catch the water.

Yes, we walk on water.
We let the kids watch about an hour of Dora/Backyardigans/Blue's Clues. We set them up like in a cinema and gave them popcorn. You can see the laptop in the foreground.
We did manage to make it to the beach on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, one of my daughters (Addie) turned into a mermaid, and the other (Heather) turned into an octopus.

Each family had one of those Coleman stoves. They are great. Though, each has its own personality that shows itself when you try to light it. This one was in a particularly bad mood.
I love the irony of the charred WARNING label.
I believe it was Connell who suggested that portaging on foot was too easy, and that it would be faster on a bike. Greg, recognizing the rare occasion that all the required gear was easily at hand, decided to give it a go. Here is the video. In short, it was going well until the tip of the canoe happened to hit a 4x4-inch post.

All-told, we had a good time despite the weather. Actually, I find intense sun difficult to handle, so the clouds were welcome. I even like the sound of rain at night. All the families are proud that we stuck it out in the face of warnings of "incessant rain" reported by our BlackBerries and iPhones (this is how you distinguish normal campers from yuppie campers).

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