Learning to Drive (again)

I’ve got my license when I was seventeen. But my car died the same year, an after that I moved to the “big city” where I didn’t really need a private vehicle, so in actual fact, I haven’t really been behind the wheel that much. Actually, thinking about it, the time between when I stopped driving and now is about as long as the time between when I got my license and when I learned to walk.

I’m old.

Also, I’m really not a qualified driver.

So, I’m taking lessons again. I’m on my way to my second lesson now. My first lesson was super nerve wracking, and not at all helped by the fact I’m learning on the other side of the road. Considering how little time I’ve actually spent driving, it was absolutely shocking to me how badly I wanted to drive on the right side of the road. If I turned onto a road with other cars, it was ok. I could just follow the leader. Onto an empty road though and it was right lane ahead!

The other annoying thing is that my wipers kept coming on every time I signalled left or right. I made a mental note to ask the instructor if his car needed servicing when I see him next.

If I had the know-how, this is what I’d build.

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If I had the know-how, this is what I’d build.

I’d build a filter for the internet that counted the number of horrible things that people try to show me, and brought it down to a manageable number.

I don’t need to see every story about every grieving widow, child or parent to know that there is sadness in the world. I don’t need to see ten stories in the same paper on the same day about the same event to be informed about the news. When it’s overwhelming, it makes people sad and complacent, not informed.

I would love to take all of the terrible, awful, no good and generally depressing link-bait that are used to generate ad revenue and run it through a single channel, and then turn down the volume so low that maybe the little bits of happiness that make it into the daily news would actually get some eyeballs.

With enough views, it might just encourage the major news companies to start baiting me with happiness, and inspiration, and pictures of new life instead of the grotesque horror show that passes for popular news. And maybe, if enough people saw as much good about the world as we see bad today, that would be enough to make things just a little bit better for all of us.

So, that’s what I’d build, if I had the know how.

Game of Thrones pose

Xavier and Sarah were downtown the other day and Xavier insisted on getting his photo taken with the Game of Thrones throne. He also insisted on making that terrible face. Maybe this is his tough-guy look?

When should I book a flight?

A few weeks back we had a guest lecturer come round the office who specializes in travel hacking. Over the years our family has had a running discussion around when, exactly, is the best time to purchase a plane ticket (Sarah and I figured, not too early, and not too late was best) so I thought I’d ask and get the right answer.

The short version:
If you are paying cash, book the ticket as far ahead as you can.

Longer version:
When you go to book a ticket, you normally only consider which kind of fare it is: economy, premium economy, business, first, etc. However, within each fare type, there are several different fare classes. For example, on a particular airline, there might be 6 different economy tickets, each with different prices and restrictions. The most expensive, known as full-fare economy (the Latitude fare on Air Canada) is often more expensive than the cheapest business class, but it comes with features like return, exchange and upgradability.

Anyhow, these different fare classes are always available on a flight, but they have two restrictions. First, only so many tickets of each class is made available for each flight (so, maybe there are only 4 tickets available for the cheapest economy fare). Second, each fare class has an expiry date that kicks in a few days before the flight takes off. The magic cut off days are 50, 21, 7 and 3 days. So, until 50 days before a flight you can book all classes, and 49 days before some kinds of tickets become unavailable.

This means that booking a ticket way in advance should prevent any issues with the fare cut offs, and is likely to make it easier to get one of the limited availability cheap seats.

There are only two possible downsides to booking a ticket as far in advance as possible.

First, it’s possible that by waiting you might find a seat sale that’s made available at a later date. This is a bit of a gamble though.

Second, if you are booking on points, seats are all in the same category – and actually some seats will open up the closer you get to the flight date. In particular, he said if you want business class seats, they tend to open within 3 days of flying (that’s too close for me though).

Aerial Assist

I spent part of Friday and all of Saturday refereeing a robotics competition. It was amazing!

The game is called Aerial Assist, and it’s sponsored by the First Robotics Competition – an organisation that organises robotics education and games for kids and uni students.

Each team consisted of four players and a rather sizeable robot. Teams rotated trough different combinations of red vs blue, with three teams aside. The fact that your opponent in one round may be your team mate in a later match helped to keep things sporting. During game play, the two teams fought for control of one of two balls on the field, and we’re awarded points for scoring in a high or low net, passing between robots, and pitching the ball over a crossbeam mid field. You could also be awarded points if the other team commits a foul – most of which were safety related.

There’s a good video explaining the match rules here. Or, a video of a real match.

I know a lot of folks who would have a great deal of fun at these things. The kids involved work closely with mentors who teach them mostly about construction (wiring, welding, metal work, mechanics, drive trains, etc) and a little about programming. In addition to the physical robot, you also have to wire up control systems so that you can drive your robot using a joystick or similar. Additionally each round begins with an automated component during which the robots are given ten seconds to try and score a goal on their own. Bonus points are awarded if you score I a net that is specially marked at the beginning if the round, so it pays to teach your robot to “see” which is the correct net.

Aside from all the engineering work, which happens pre match, there’s also the strategy in the competition, and some skill in driving your creation. As the day went on you could see strategies emerging, similar to a simple soccer match. Teams would choose one robot to run defence and block opponent goals, another to score (usually a robot who could score in the top net for more points) and a “centre” to run the ball between your defence and offence, which helps to rack up assists.

There was something for just about everyone, and pretty good stadium seating for spectators who cheered or danced to keep things lively during the day.

I did check to see if this exists in Canada – most of the folks I know who would be keen live in BC or the east coast. There are some teams, but not in these places. It does t take long to do well, this year a rookie team made it to the semifinals, and another finished in the winners group of three. I see that Alberta got involved last year, and they already have a load of teams, so it could happen. It just needs some interested coaches and mentors.

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Decisions is hard

Our computer has had it. Or nearly had it. Or maybe it was done a year ago and we just didn’t notice. In any case, the workhorse that we bought needs to be put out to pasture. Getting a replacement is hard though!

Our machine is pretty close to seven years (that’s, like, 102 in computer years) old now. It’s run wonderfully through most of that time, in no small part because we bought a top end spec. (To make WoW that much prettier). So what’s so hard about doing the same thing again? Well, a couple of things.

Computers are expensive. At least the top end ones. Sarah specced out something just shy of 4k the first time I sent her to the apple store.

Computers are complicated. we are at a point where there are too many qualifiers, and the path to more better isn’t just at the high end of the numerical scale. Do I want dual or quad core i5s or i7s? What about hdd, ssd, or fusion (that’s like teriyaki burritos, right?)? And is 3.2gHz from 2012 better than 1.6 from 2014? Sounds like it depends. On a lot of things.

I’ve got two conflicting deadlines. If I buy before the end of June, I can get a tax rebate by end of October. If I wait till October, I can (probably) get next years model. Apple always does a refresh of something in October time frame.

Not to mention, seven years later I now have a few other things that I like spending money on. Like Daycare and visits to North America.

At least for the time being I’ve got a strategy. Watch the refurb selections in the apple store. If anything with an SSD or Teriyaki Taco drive pops
up before July, I’ll pounce.

Until then I’m going to stick the old iMac into morse code mode and hope for the best.

Saying Goodbye

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Today, Xavier’s best friend moves away. He’s taking Sarah’s best friend with him.

Sarah I’m sad for, but she’s an adult. She understands what’s happening, and why, and she has the ability to make new friends more freely than a 3 year old. Xavier on the other hand still doesn’t really grasp what’s happening.

“Leland is moving to his Grandmas” we told him. He knows that Grandma’s always live on the other end of a plane.
“Big plane!”
“Yes, he’s going on a big plane. He’s moving. You may not see him again.”
“Me big plane! I go with Leland!”
“No, you can’t go with Leland. You have to stay with Mommy and Daddy.”

And so it goes. He hasn’t asked yet when Leland is coming back, but I know that this is coming. His friend, who is a little older, still uses words like vacation and holiday to describe what’s happening.

Moving is hard, but being the kid who doesn’t move feels at least as hard. In Xavier’s case, nothing new and exciting happens, there is no change except for loss. On our end, we are going to try and fill his time over the next two weeks. Partly with fun things to do, and partly with play dates if we can find them. Xavier and Leland (and Sarah and Dani) played together about 6 days a week, so I don’t expect we’ll be able to fill that gap in their lives. But, given enough toddlers, we might be able to make a dent.

The Top End

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For my birthday this year I did something a little different. I flew to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory to teach school kids how to build Lego robots. A small group from my office was heading up and they were a person short. I’d had some related experience at an earlier job, and Darwin was on my shortlist of places to see, so I jumped at the opportunity (and then asked my wife, who kindly said yes).

The entire flight up I had my nose glued to the window. We didn’t quite go over the red centre, but we went awfully close. I finally got to see some red dirt! (#1 on my Aussie bucket list) The dessert is beautiful. Way more colourful than I’d thought it would be. Most of the colour seems to follow what must be seasonal waterways. There were also some stunning views where you could see a roadway down the middle of the landscape with dessert on one side, and grasslands on the other. I guess just having a concrete barrier was enough to break up the encroaching sand and let the new growth get started.

After landing in the city I had a chance to take a short trip around downtown. Its a sizable community by my standards, but feels very small. Most buildings are one or two stories tall, and the CBD is made up of small shop windows along quiet streets. It reminded me a lot of PG in terms of the feel of the city.

One other thing that stood out was the large indigenous population in the area. In particular in the city parks. I don’t know the community well enough to fairly describe them, but I can safely say that there were a lot of people hanging out in small circles or sleeping in the shade. While I definitely got the feeling that poverty and substance abuse was in play, I can’t say for sure if that was the case, or just my own bias from back home where that’s very definitely the case. On a few occasions I tried comparing what I was seeing with what I’ve seen before and was rebuked. This was something different.

One thing that I did think was weird was that I couldn’t make my way down to the water. I tried finding the beach but didn’t have any luck. When I got back to the hotel someone told me that there’s a very good reason for that: the beach is home to giant salt water crocodiles. They live in the ocean along the top of Australia, and Darwin was built in the middle of one of their natural habitats. One of the ladies I met told me that it felt like a cruel joke to be so close to beautiful beach, in a city that is 32-34° 360 days a year, and not be able to swim. To help out a bit,the city maintains several inland outdoor swimming pools that are freely available to locals looking to beat the heat.

That night we visited the Middle Markets, a good and stuff market that takes place along a safer stretch of beach. You still didn’t see anyone in the water but people did get a lot closer to the edge. The markets are the place to be on Thursday nights and thousands of people showed up in style (big caravans and deck chairs) to grab a bite and watch the sun set.

On our second day in the city we went to a nearby school to help Grade 5&6s learn about robots and programming. I won’t go into much detail other than to say that it was a very fun, and very rewarding day.

That evening my colleagues surprised me with a mini birthday celebration. I had this lovely pin, silly hats, dinner, wine and churros for dessert.

The third day was a bit of a strange one. I couldn’t do too much, as most of the tours ran at odds with my flight home. But there was one thing I could do that seemed really unique I ended up tagging along with my colleagues again as they drove an hour towards nowhere to visit a school in Bachelor, NT. This is a city of about 480 people, half of which come from the local indigenous community. They had a small group up there building much larger robots for a competition later in June. I. The short time that I was there I met with about a dozen different folk from northern Queensland and the northern territory. I also go to take explore the school grounds for a bit which were lovely. Tropical climates are totally foreign to me and just about square metre contains something cool to look at. Pics below. I joked with one of the guys at the school that even the toilets were amazing – after stopping in for a pit stop I spent the next five minutes admiring large butterflies, teeny lizards, exotic spiders and a bunch of other interesting critters.

We ended up very very close to Lichfield National Park, which is the home of those giant magnetic termite mounds. I didn’t see any of the giant mounds, but there were plenty smaller mounds on the local school grounds. It looks like they crop up at the base of a tree or thick shrub and then grow as the little guys feast. There were a few places on campus where the mound had got a few feet high and the associated tree had been cut short.

I think that by any Australians standards it was a pretty dismal trip. But I still get a big thrill every time I see something that’s not North American. Termite mounds, stubby palm trees, crocodile infested waters – it’s all amazing. Meeting some of the folk from the local indigenous community and sharing some stories was equally incredible. On top of that, working with the kids is always me sly rewarding. Nearly three classrooms joined us, and nearly every kid there (and a few of their teachers) had a blast.

Sunshine Coast

On our second day in Brisbane Jesse and Aaron drove us down to the Gold Coast, the miles long beach that stretches from Brisbane to the New South Wales border. Its nothing but amazing coastline the entire way.

We spent about eights hours out, with three longish stops to break it up. The first stop was at a park near Surfers Paradise to let Xavier have a bit of a run around. This place was massive! It had a permanent jumping installed in the middle of a sand pit (guess where X spent his time), giant lizards to climb on, and a huge rail track around the outside complete with pedal trains.

Next was in Surfers Paradise proper. We got out for a coffee and a bit of a play on the beach.

Finally, we drove all the way down to Coolangata, well known for being featured in the first Australian travel jingle, “Its hot in Brisbane, but it’s Coolangata.” X was asleep at this point so we just snapped a few pics and hopped back in the car.

It was an amazing day, and a great drive. There’s more to say for sure, but I’ll let the pics speak for themselves.

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