Owning a swimming pool

Owning a swimming pool

Over a year ago, when we staring looking for a new home in town, whether or not there was a pool didn’t really enter into our decision making process. For my wife, it was a detriment, and to me, I was neutral on the topic. We were both fairly active swimmers in our youth, and for me, I have a weakness for the smell of chlorine. Chlorine reminds me of early Saturday mornings when the sunlight could make it into the windows of the pool where I taught swimming lessons. The sun would light up the place and the day seemed to be full of the boundless energy of the kids I was teaching. I miss that feeling. Read more

North Campus of uWaterloo and its secret swings

As a lifetime local, I can remember when there was very little to the Kitchener-Waterloo area relative to today. My parent’s first house was near the corner of Queen and Fischer Hallman, backing onto Fischer Hallman road, when it was only a two-lane street. Across the street from our backyard was an abandoned farm field, which is now the Real Canadian Superstore. When I was a kid, there wasn’t much beyond Fischer Hallman; the Forest Heights neighborhood was just starting out, and construction was everywhere. Growing up, I spent countless hours in the farm field, watching ducks in the pond, picking the “wild” daffodils that grew by the pine tree stand, and building forts with construction materials that were seemingly abandoned everywhere.

It’s sad to think that there aren’t too many places left like that around here. Construction is booming, and wild areas are all quickly filled in with homes. New parks are built everywhere, and there is very little reason for kids nowadays to wander off into the woods in search of adventure. There is still some space left like that, wild and free, but you just have to look harder, and one spot is hidden in the University of Waterloo’s North Campus. Slowly construction is filling it in with the business park, but there is still the stream and wild area surrounding it.

The area has changed considerably since when I was a kid. There used to be a golf course up there, and Columbia Lake looks nothing like it did a decade ago due to its recent re-engineering.  North Campus was pretty far to bike to when I was younger, but I still made the trip once in a while. During lunch the other day I went for a walk through the woods along the stream, just off the bicycle path, part reliving the memories of my youth, part for the sake of adventure, only to be pleasantly surprised.

I counted at least three swings installed on trees along the stream through North Campus.

The one pictured above is tried to a cedar tree growing beside the stream.

Immediately upon finding the first swing I was transported back to my childhood. I felt that same sense of wonder and magic that comes from venturing off the beaten path and making new discoveries. Finding the first one was pretty cool; subsequent discoveries of more swings turned it into an adventure. How many would I find? Who put them there? Why? From my childhood adventures I knew there was a foundation that the stream ran through further back into the forest, possibly it was an old mill, and it was a target I wanted to find again. So, I trudged further back into the woods, to find the best swing of all was installed looking over the little “waterfall” that ran through it:

Here’s a closer look at the swing:

It was a rare treat to find something like this. If you are feeling adventurous too, I recommend you go look for them in the near future. I only wish I’d thought of doing this first.


Positive feedback

I am a big believer in giving credit where credit is due.

If you provide crappy service to me, I will complain. I will talk to you, to your manager, and I will sometimes write a letter. In that order, depending upon the responses I receive.

As emotionally satisfying as it may be to shit on someone who is doing a bad job, often we lose sight that it frequently isn’t their fault. They could be having a rough day, they could have a lousy boss, or customers could be walking all over them and they’ve had enough of being everyone else’s doormat. That’s why the ladder approach is best. Talk to the person who has slighted you, try to get their side, show them some empathy, and often they’ll open up and fix the wrong right away.

Now, if you provide great service to me, well, that is even more reason to celebrate. And to have fun doing it, too. Often we overlook giving positive feedback because we think “well, it’s their job, that’s what they are paid to do”. But a little bit of positive feedback can go long way to ensure you get great service every time. It also creates a little satisfaction for employees doing the jobs we wouldn’t shouldn’t or can’t do ourselves.

In the end, kindness wins, and we should try to lead with that first.

Today I submitted some feedback for an employee who has always been awesome whenever they do stuff for me. I’d like to share it with you:

How can we improve our response the next time?

Pay (employees_name) more. Also, crown him Emperor of IST, Defender of the Services, Monarch of the Bits. He requires a cohort of co-op students working for him, massaging his feet and fanning him with palm leaves, occasionally feeding him grapes and red bull.

Was there anything that was particularly well done?

I don’t know what it is, but when I see that I request I have submitted gets assigned to (employees_name), the hairs on my arm stand up, as though some long-dormant genes going as far back as to perhaps my Gothic heritage have been activated.

Suddenly, it isn’t a request for a new subdomain or server share: I am standing outside of Rome, getting ready to attack it, yet I am not nervous. My experience in the army has taught me to keep my leather armour on tight, my bronze blade sharpened to a razor-sharp edge, and my faith in our leader – (employees_name) – absolute.

Atop his steed, (employees_name) raises his fist into the grey, foggy sky. And with relish, he drops it down, signalling the attack to commence. A roar trumpets from the crowd, and in the distance, the legions of Roman soldiers can, ever so slightly, be seen to be losing their nerve. They shift on their feet, look nervously at each other, and grip a little tighter on their swords.

Fire arches up through the sky, soaring majestically over the advancing Goth lines, and hitting their marks true, creating panic amongst the Roman ranks. But the Romans have an Ace up their sleeves. Unbeknownst to the Goths, the 22nd-century version of the Pope had authorized a special team of scientists to clone, train and send back in time a squadron of genetically-engineered, highly intelligent Velociraptors to fight for Rome. Their mission: to ensure Rome never falls, that the reign of the Holy Roman Empire to be world-wide, absolute, and everlasting.

The sight of these strange creatures, to this date, no man has ever laid eyes upon before, breaks the resolve of the Goth lines. No longer thundering forward, they stumble and sputter to a stop; unsure and slightly fearful of the sight before them, they stare blankly in silence at these scaly, toothy Deacons of terror, from a time-yet-to-be.

A slight pause of silence echos over the land, only to be replaced with a singular, blood-letting scream. From behind the Goth, a trample of hooves can be heard rapidly approaching, soaring, and landing in front of the Gothic lines. Without hesitation, with the pure, singular focus of a thousand suns onto a single point, (employees_name) races forward toward the Velociraptors, sword in hand, teeth clenched tight.

The terrifying beasts surge forward with reptilian efficiency, thirsty for blood.

Both parties approach rapidly and without breath, and when they are within mere feet of each other, in the blink of an eye, (employees_name) leaps from steed. His writs flick quickly three times, and he lands on his feet. Behind him, three dazed Velociraptors pause, and for a few seconds, they appear as though they are considering the ridiculousness of their existence.  And as though those thoughts have formed their new reality, they suddenly drop to the earth, dead.

And that’s when (employees_name) stood up, splattered in foreign inter-dimensional blood, and went to work.

(employees_name) is efficient, the most efficient soldier of IST I have had the pleasure to work with, and there is nothing that isn’t done well under his watch.

2011 Staff Conference – My Experince

Suffice to say, I felt that my presentation at the 2011 Waterloo Staff Conference (#ohdconf and #uwaterloo hashtags for those who twitter) went well. Not that I had any doubt it wouldn’t go well; public speaking is usually one of my strengths. Links to the presentation and other random content discussed are available here.

Looking back, it is ironic I was over prepared for my presentation. I spoke highly about pulling a MacGyver, but I thought about my presentation way too much and had way too many demonstrations packed up that I never ended up using. But there is always next time.

I spoke for about 45 mins and did 30 minutes of activities, and if anything I should have flipped that; less talking and more action. I felt the audience got more out of the demonstrations rather than the talk (although I do feel the talk did generate a lot of interest and laughs). I am looking forward to getting more specific feedback once I have an opportunity to read the feedback forms.

One of the things that shocked me was how few people had heard of the term phreaking. I figured that being a university-based audience at a school known for its technical programs there would be a good chunk of people aware, if not openly involved with, this sort of activity. Only three hands went up when asked if they knew the term, out of a group of about 75. I have always known that I am a knowledgeable guy; I have destroyed many opponents in trivial pursuit, and I can get very aggressive during scrabble games, but I still find that I take it for granted other people spend as much time as me reading about… everything.

After introducing the audience to the world of hackers, I picked a volunteer who had never programmed before (April, thank-you again for braving the stage with me) and demonstrated just how super easy it was to program (and modify programs with) a micro controller. She even hooked up an LED to the board as well. Thank-you Arduino.

My next volunteer was Carmen, my co-op student, who helped me to put the Arduino to practical use, setting it up with a garden watering valve, and a pair of nails, in order to monitor soil moisture and automatically water the ground when its too dry.

With time running short, we quickly moved into making LED throwies with the entire audience, and fortunately a few were left in some interesting places around the new accounting wing on campus.

Urinal Throwie
Urinal Throwie

… and that was it for the presentation.

Like I mentioned, there was a lot we didn’t get to do. I had made a MIDI drum set (based upon the ardrumo project) and was going to show how it easy it was to duplicate that project. I really wanted to do that one because the new lecture rooms in the new accounting wing are awesome, with great speakers and acoustics. I was also going to show how easy it is to connect the arduino to the internet, and to make a roving robot with it. If I had 20 more minutes it would have all been possible. But again, there is always next time, and I am already prepared. Although, by the next time I do this sort of presentation again, I’ll probably have even cooler stuff to demonstrate.

I just want to say thank-you to the Office of Human Development at Waterloo for organizing an excellent staff conference this year, and for letting me present in it. I’d like to thank my audience for being awesome, and and extra big thank-you to April and Carmen for helping me out.

As for me, I think I’ll take a break from electronics for a couple of weeks. I’ve been meaning to learn how to crochet. Now feels like a great time to start. Anyone with any tips or suggestions give me a shout.

Easing back into electronics

So for the first time in about seven years, I fired up the old soldering iron, and made some connections. I assembled one of these, a birthday gift from last year.

Fifteen minutes of effort, and I was done. I put together my first project since I worked for ESQ. Keep in mind, when I worked for ESQ, I was in charge of the circuit activities. Designing, testing, creating Gerber files, finding a donor to print to boards, testing them, sourcing and buying all the parts, training staff how to teach kids as young as 8 how to assemble them, and documenting it all. I even won an award for it. I went from 100 to 0 in… well, a matter of days.

Life happened. I graduated, got a “real” job, moved out (permanently this time) and I no longer had the time. I no longer had the room. I no longer had the motivation to tinker on my own.

My first “real” job was nothing like what any of my student jobs were. My student jobs were fun, creative, exciting, and they paid terrible. But I loved (most) of them. My first “adult” job was boring, monotonous, soul-crushing. Days where is was so busy I counted the minutes until I was done, and days where it was so slow I felt I was being paid to hold down the chair. Any attempts at improving my job or working conditions were often stymied by office politics, rules, procedures, reasons I had never encountered before as a student. As a student I just asked if it were okay, I was usually told yes, and I did it. Now I had committees, meetings, where it felt like I had to get approval for and idea I have from people that would never be affected by it, and they usually would say no. For what it was, the job paid well, I was treated well, but for the first time ever, I felt like a very small cog in a very large machine, whereas before I… I wasn’t a damn cog, that’s for sure.

Moving out presented the challenge of space. Having a roommate and sharing a 900 square-foot apartment has its limits, I one thing I definitely didn’t have the room for was a workshop/workspace. I barely had room for a desk for myself.

It’s odd how quickly the realities of real life comes crushing down on you once you are out on your own for the first time. There are limits. You have only so much space, only so much money, only so much time. Being a student gives you convenient access to so many resources, shared and free, that disappear once you graduate. Enjoy them Abuse them while you can.

Fast forward seven years later, I have a home, a family, and… workspace. Again. Finally. My wife finds it weird that I have a workshop the size that I do (I tell her it is a family thing, that’s a story for another time) but I need it. It affords me the one level of happiness I have missed for the past seven years: being creative. Building things, fixing things, making things with my own two hands. It feels satisfying, inspiring, and once again, I have that control. I feel less like a cog, and more like the designer of the cog.

The inspiration to get back into soldering came from one place:

He wants to make a real robot. Funny how kids inspire you to be a better person.