Angry Robot

A Great Disturbance in the Robot

Well I’ve started moving the site over to WordPress. The site currently runs Textpattern which is a little outdated and there are a bunch of things I’d like to be doing that I can’t do. Unfortunately, this blog was started about ten years ago, and I also imported most of the posts from my previous blog, so… there are something like 4,000 posts. A) It’s making me question my life choices, B) it seems to break every available import script, so there may be no way of doing this without some manner of schism, rupture, lacuna, or scene kinda like at the end of The Force Awakens where there’s a bigass earthquake and a huge rip in the ground and on the one side, this blog’s entire history, sweaty, overweight, insecure and broken, and on the other side, angrily waving its lightsaber, the svelte, cocky, and bug-eyed Future.

We’re not there yet, so bear with me. Blog rupture.

No Man's Blog Post

I don’t personally recall an indie game that received as much hype as No Man’s Sky, and I’ve been gamin’ since you were naught but a twinkle in your daddy’s ball sack. That it presents some aspect of Ultimate Nerd Fantasy has something to do with it. (I’m talking about space exploration, in case you thought I meant fussy inventory management.)

High expectations usually mean huge disappointment, and NMS didn’t disappoint in the disappointment department. By that I mean it was disappointing, to a lot of people. Just to clarify. Man what a disappointing paragraph.

I get the disappointment. I feel you, man. Here is a clear technical and artistic marvel of a game: a procedurally generated actual universe of unprecedented size, uncommon beauty, set to haunting music, and with such a frustrating initial gameplay loop that it seems to accidentally pose some deep questions about the pointlessness of existence. I can go anywhere in the fucking universe and I’m worried about how much iridium my ship can carry? What the fuck is wrong with me?

You get the sense that developer Hello Games struggled to find some gameplay that could be tacked on to the bundle of infinite beauty they had somehow dreamed up, and what they arrived at goes something like: Space Minecraft, but instead of collecting resources to build things, you collect ‘em to upgrade ship, suit and tools. It’s more complicated than that – there’s some plot, and yes you can fight pirates kinda. But that’s the base loop, and at the beginning it’s made much harder because you are randomly presented some subset of ALL the resources, depending on what random planet you spawn on. And you don’t know which resources you need to fuel this or that engine or improve this or that device. And your inventory is much too small.

As you upgrade your stuff, and learn what each resource is needed for, the gameplay becomes less frustrating. 25 slots of inventory means waaay fewer fussy decisions than 12 slots. The loop continues, though; you see pretty ships and they cost millions of space bucks. You start finding out which rarer, riskier resources might yield some real cheddar if systematically harvested. But is that really the point? It’s gameplay loop as existential crisis: a prettier ship, is that all I care about? It won’t get me to the finish line any faster. Is getting to the finish line faster even what I care about? It’s a real Conan, what is best in life? sort of situation. And I’m not sure that crushing your enemies is all that necessary.

In my opinion: the real joy of this game is exploring, discovering new worlds, seeing what strange beings have fluked into existence, and then speeding off for the horizon again. Zen Space Drifter should be the gameplay loop, not Soulless Min-maxing Resource Bandit. It’s odd to have a game’s own systems try to herd you away from that realization, but I suppose the original plan, open-world style, was to have a variety of activities that could constitute gameplay. Trading! Piracy! Taking pictures of rare space birds! Then most of them got stripped down to virtual non-existence in the rush to ship. Hopefully they also crib the continual updates from Minecraft, too, and this becomes a lot more fleshed out down the road.

I don’t mind it, though. After some light bingeing to start, I went a few days without playing it, and actually missed it. I’m a relaxed space tourist – I scan a lot of new lifeforms, take a lot of screenshots of cool animals and pretty sunsets n’ shit. It feels like getting high in your buddy’s van and looking at prog-rock album covers. Is it worth $80 CDN, the…. Eighty dollar question? I guess it depends on how many nights I hang out in the procedurally generated Imagination Van. Is it cheaper to just pay for some gas n’ grass and albums or… no wait, I’m min-maxing again.

OneNote Notes

It’s funny for me to be trying a Microsoft product willingly! I have been using a Mac since my parents got a Mac Plus in 1985, and back then Microsoft was the ENEMY. Then I was forced to use shitty busted up old Windows PCs at work for many years, which did not foster any love. But nowadays you could make a stronger case for Apple as Evil Empire of the tech world, and Microsoft in its post-Ballmer era is hustling hard in the corners. That OneNote is currently even a possibility for me shows how things have changed. A couple years ago OneNote would only have had apps for Windows and Windows Mobile, but now it’s got apps for macOS, iOS, Android and the web. And they’re really good.

OneNote has got got a rather forceful notebook interface metaphor: you open a notebook and then you have section tabs along the top, and lists of notebook pages along the side. To continue the paper metaphor, you can type anywhere on a note “page”, it will start a new text box. You can drag in whatever you want, and position it wherever. If you had a tablet and a stylus you could just start writing or drawing anywhere, too. I didn’t need that, but I do like it. Kinda fun!

If anything, the app seems to have more features than Evernote. It’s not what I was looking for, but at least they are gracefully hidden away when not in use. There are lots of formatting features, drawing, file embedding, note linking, video recording? OCR? Page versions? Page Templates? There’s a lot here.

The Windows app is actually ten years old and has that typical Microsoft thing where it’s absolutely rammed with features, and not very intuitive when it comes to discovering them, but you can customize almost everything in it. The Mac app is more recent and not quite as insanely customizable, but it is very nice. The iOS app, at least on iPhone, is much more stripped down, quite sensibly so.

There is a reasonably well-featured web clipper that works in Chrome and Safari, and saves either as “article”, “full page” or “section” (which means drag-for-a-screenshot). The separate iOS app Office Lens does your document scanning and sends stuff into OneNote. You can forward emails into OneNote, too.

The OneNote business model is interesting. The app is free, but storage is done through Microsoft’s online Dropbox-alike OneDrive, which gives you 5GB for free. After that it’s $2/mo for 50GB, and after that you go up to OneDrive + Office 365, which gives you 1TB for $7/mo, but also includes licenses for all the Office apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook). So OneNote isn’t really a product at all, but a way of upselling you to Office. There is a decent Evernote importer app for PC, and I imported everything from eight years of Evernote use and it takes up under 2 gigs, so I think this product is free for my purposes. For now anyway.

Downsides: inexplicably, there is no way to sort the list of notes other than manually. There were some goofups with the Evernote import, and now my notes are sorted in the right notebooks, but in random order. And all images are scaled up to wacky, scrollfest size. Another potential downside is that if you completely freak out with the “place anything ANYWHERE on the page maaaaan” attitude those notes are gonna be another scrollfest on your phone.

But these are minor gripes really, and for now, I have a winner. I’m surprisingly happy with OneNote, and if you’re looking to switch from Evernote, this is definitely the leading candidate.

NoteStation Notes

This is the third in a series of posts about note apps/services. In part 1 I explained why I was going to try to move from Evernote. In part 2 I tried Apple Notes.

So, here we are in “Note Station”, which is Synology’s built-in attempt at an Evernote competitor.

Let’s back up a bit – Synology makes Network Attached Storage computers, or NASes. That’s basically a bunch of hard drive bays wrapped in a server. They are known for the quality of their built-in software, and they market these things at both home multimedia enthusiast type users, and small- to medium-sized business. So they include apps for photo sharing, video collections and downloading stuff as well as a mail server, Exchange integration and stuff like this (relatively newly introduced) Evernote-alike. If you don’t have a Synology, sorry – this article won’t be much help for you. But if you do, read on! Because I have one (nyah nyah)

Some trepidation is warranted: so far, I don’t use too many of the Synology-made apps as I usually find them not quite up to their native competitors. Part of it is the web app thing. Synology builds iOS clients (and maybe Android?) which are usually good, but on the desktop your only option is a web app. They tend to be good web apps, but I’ll pick a good native desktop app over a web app every time, and in most of the categories Synology plays in, there are indeed good desktop apps already.

Anyway. Synology’s Note Station web app definitely does less than Evernote, but Evernote does too much, so that’s mostly good. It’s much simpler and less crufty than Evernote. Some features that are present: rich formatting, tags, lists, note encryption, tables and charts(!). A plus is the robust web clipper Chrome extension, which gives you options for full content, simplified content, screenshot and whole page screenshot.

Aaand here I am in the iOS DS Note app which is surprisingly full featured – possibly even more than the web app? You can insert files and even “note links” – an obscure wiki-like feature that Evernote has but keeps buried in its menus.

Not bad!

Now for the cons. First, yes, having to use a web app is a con. I hold out a dream that someday Evernote Mac client extraordinaire Alternote allows one to use other back ends, but until then, no dice. Secondly, the web clipper is only available on Chrome. Maybe that’s not a huuge problem? But I definitely prefer Safari on my macs. 

Third and most unfairly disqualifying: IT at my workplace really loves blocking ports, and I think that’s why I actually can’t connect at all anymore to my Synology from my main work computer. I can connect from the phone and from other computers, but not the one that is ergonomically most advantageous for me to use. Not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it does mean I will keep trying out alternatives. Next time: Microsoft! OneNote!

Notes on Apple Notes

​So here I am using Apple Notes. It has some pros worth mentioning. It’s built in on Apple devices, and free. It syncs via iCloud. The web app means it can be accessed on Windows, although that’s mostly a con – more later. You can dictate notes via Siri. You can sketch stuff. I actually really like the sketch feature, but without an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil it’s more of a novelty.

Web clipping: you can save web links via share sheets in iOS and I assume macOS. This gives you a little rich preview thing but does not save the content, which I dislike. The one thing I do like is you can actually append links and other share sheet-selectable stuff to existing notes. (Siri can also append, which is cool.) Evernote couldn’t do this and it leads you to a bunch of separate atomized notes per unit of content, rather than, say, one note having to do with your web research into summoning demons.

Cons, besides no web archiving: no tags. The web app version is weak. It works, but only for referring to your notes, organizing and typing them. Because most other ways of inputting content are based on the share sheets in the OS, when you are on Windows you can’t use them. So no saving web pages, images, whatever else. I also realized there is no way to forward emails into Notes, which I do use with Evernote. Plus, you can’t actually get at the standard iOS share sheet from, which means you can’t get your emails into Notes at all. That sucks!

I had considered beforehand that other note services may not clip web page contents and so was prepared to think up other options. Using either Instapaper or Pinboard seemed possible as they are services I already use and could see adapting them to clipping web pages for notes. In practice, however, I really like having my saved web pages showing up as search results when I search my notes. But the inability to add content from Windows and email are enough reason for me to try another option, so next I will tackle the Synology solution: Note Station and DS Note.

Notes on Notes Apps

I use notes a lot and for the past eight years I have been using Evernote. For the last oh I dunno, four? of them, I have been putting up with Evernote. They went all business-focused, and suddenly were pimping “work chat” in all the apps which is essentially the opposite feature from what I want, they let most of the apps get bloated, confusing and slow, and now it sounds like they are raising the prices. Anyway. I have options! And I shall explore them, by kicking the wheels on a few competing apps while blogging about it here. Stay tuned. OMG what a complete THRILL FEST!!!!

Let’s lay out the criteria here, maybe? I use Evernote for:

I need something that works on iOS, macOS and either the web or windows.

The one thing I’m a little hung up on is clipping web pages. I don’t want just a link, I want the page archived in some form. Evernote has a few options for this – link, full page, quote or “article” (it does sort of an Instapaper-esque parsing of the content and strips out the design and crap). I’m not confident that any of the competitors will be able to do this. So I may have to explore new ways of doing it?

Things I don’t need: work chat. I don’t use any to-do list stuff, I use OmniFocus for that. I thought the OCR stuff would be handy but in practice I rarely use it.

Apps I think I will look at: OneNote, Apple Notes, and DS Note/NoteStation, the system offered by my Synology NAS. Am I missing anything?

Roderick Jaynes

The Coen Brothers edit all their films under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. Here is his bio, and here’s an interview.

Predictive Text Laffs

Not sure why, but there is a certain kind of comedy that always cracks me up: broken telephone, mistranslation, poor imitation. And also Markov chain stuff, like where an algorithm tries to guess the next word based on its analysis of previous words. It feels like a computer trying to bullshit you and failing. Here’s what I’m talkin aboot:

Something Important Happened 6

[Continued from here. All articles in this series will be archived here]

After we saw you we went down to the hospital cafeteria and ate. It was strange – you feel like food is unimportant compared to everything that’s going on. But that’s not how your stomach sees it.

There’s this strange feeling of relief after the trauma of death. If the person you love had been suffering, there is this realization that you no longer have to worry about their suffering. But there also is this stampede of busywork that sweeps you up at the worst possible time vis-a-vis your ability to actually do anything: find a funeral home. Talk to the coroner. Sign paperwork. Wills, notices, invitations, phone calls, emails, everything.

My sisters were a godsend. Having them there to bring their massively superior organizational facilities to bear on directing the stampede was an enormous help. It didn’t hurt that in times of crisis, my mother is essentially a warhorse. So all the post-death arrangements were handled by a not-unanimous but certainly professional panel.

We disagreed mildly about how the funeral should be arranged. My sisters are both Unitarians. My mom is a Catholic-raised agnostic, and I’m pretty much a Buddhist at this point. But you were an atheist. I remember you telling me there was no such thing as god when I was a kid (“but lots of people think there is, and that’s okay”). So I tried to advocate for the atheist. We decided a Unitarian church was an ok location for the event. There aren’t a lot of non-church locations that are workable for a funeral, and the Unitarians are an open-minded lot that don’t insist on any particular dogma being included in the service.

The panel invited people, decided on speakers and performers. I made an invite and then a program. I looked through old pictures of you. I began to feel proud. Still sad, but as I had discovered there are many different kinds of sad.

You wanted to be cremated, so we had to go up to the funeral home to inspect the body before this was to happen. No one was invited but the funeral home fixes you up in your dressy clothes anyway. We went and saw you and they had combed your hair oddly – puffed out to the side. It made us laugh; you would have laughed too. Although I remember wishing I could have somehow just atomized your body as soon as you had left it. Better that than have strangers handling it and screwing up your hair.

We fought about the remembrance ceremony, as we were now calling it. We met with the officiant, a nice Unitarian minister (priest?) whose suggestions I nonetheless had to keep vetoing, because I felt I knew what you would want. There would be no prayers or invocations. There would be remembrances, and songs.

People started to arrive. My sisters’ families, my aunt and uncle. The house started to fill up. A neighbour lent us their house for the duration, and we put people up there. People told stories about you. We rehearsed the songs.

Then the memorial day came, and we put it on. We played songs from your album as people filed in. It was quite a crowd. We had few decorations, some flowers, some pictures of you. You were a handsome man, don’t you know? Friends of yours came, many who I hadn’t seen in years. Friends of mine came from work. Friends I hadn’t heard from in ages had heard about it and asked to come saying, “your dad was a good guy.”

People spoke. We heard your life story – in part, but well told, by the people who were there. And at the end we sang that song.

Afterwards it was a wake at your house. People filed in; it got crowded. Some said it was the best funeral they had ever been at. Some said, “he had quite a life”. I switched into associate host mode and didn’t have much of a chance to think about my own feelings, which was good. We poured Guinness, and food was served; people were hanging out in the garden. Stories were told. Your old friends told me how much I reminded them of you.

And in that way, on that day, the old, withered, wraith-Tom began to recede and a new, remembered and imperfect – but much more representative – Tom took form.

It’s been over five years now since that day. In the months following, things were hard to take. Many things that were important in my life – work, my interests, whether I got out of bed – seemed insignificant compared to what had happened to you. As time went on, I was able to put things back together again, and figure out what belonged, and what I should jettison, what I should work towards, and what I should just drop.

As with the memorial, I tried to think what you would do, and I still do that every day.

I wear your watch on my wrist; I think of you every time I look at it. Your picture sits next to our dining room table, which you made. My daughter knows your name and your face. She asks about you. I wish you two could have met, but that’s not how it happened. So I tell her stories; good stories. There are so many. So much wisdom. Thank you for all of it.

Something Important Happened 5

[Continued from here. All articles in this series will be archived here]

My mom and I talked after this doctor left, as neither of us could recall which department he had said he was from. We joked desperately that perhaps he didn’t even work here. A twisted soul who came in off the street to give bad news to strangers. An angel of death.

A day or two passed. The junior geriatrics doctor met us and we discussed ‘the palliative option’. Then the junior geriatrics doctor brought the senior geriatrics doctor. They were kind and thorough. They echoed the angel of death. They described your state since the fall as a ‘delirium’, and said it was actively harmful to the brain. They said you would likely be much worse off, if you recovered, which now seemed unlikely.

By the time the geriatrics team was preparing to leave we had decided that you should go into palliative care. You did not deserve this suffering.

I cried when they left. Your breathing got quite bad – these ragged, grasping pulls of air. Sometimes it sounded like you were either trying to say something, or calling out in pain. My mom became upset and demanded a nurse give you some pain medicine. It helped. The machines now showed your vitals update every second and I watched them like a stock trader in the middle of a crash. I did get one glimpse of a smile when I talked to you – barely visible under your oxygen mask, but detectable in the creases of your eyes.

They told us we should go home and get some sleep so we tried it. That night was hard. Here I was, in my newly purchased home, drinking a scotch, and there you were, in some nether state of consciousness, labouring to breathe, completely alone. I wished I knew where you were, where you were going.

Early the next morning the phone rang. It was my mother – the hospital had called and you were not doing well. I called a cab. I was on Bayview when my mom called again and said you had died.

My sisters and mothers were there when I arrived. You were there in body only — I struggle uselessly to write about this moment, my sentences forming and then falling apart. My words like a bridge across a chasm, a bridge that falls away.

You had loved a particular song, one that you and I performed at my aunt’s funeral. We always knew we’d sing it at yours. I always knew I’d experience something like its final verse. Alyssa started singing it right there at your deathbed, and we all joined in.

Went back home, my home was lonesome
Since my mother she been gone
All my brothers, sisters crying
What a home so sad and ‘lone.

Will the circle be unbroken,
By and by, Lord, by and by.
There’s a better home a-waitin’
In the sky, Lord, in the sky.

Something Important Happened 4

[Continued from here. All articles in this series will be archived here]

You fell. Two weeks later you fell again. But no one told my mom, so when she got in, she tried to get you out of your chair to bring you to the bathroom. You screamed in pain, then told her, “something important happened!”

It was a Tuesday. You had gotten up in the middle of the night, as you liked to. A caregiver came in to see you shaky in the middle of the room. You fell and she managed to protect your head, but you banged your hip and knee.

My mom asked one of the home officials if they would not do an x-ray, and he said the physiotherapist had examined you and you were fine. He moved your leg and said, “see? He’s fine.” Nonetheless my mom discovered she could insist on an x-ray. They said they would do it the next day at 2:30. She got there at 2 and they told her they had done it at 8am. They had only x-rayed your knee. It was fine.

My mom grew angry and told them they needed to do your hip. They said the doctor would examine him and see if it was necessary. But the doctor would not be in for a couple of days.

You were out of it now. You weren’t eating well for the first time in ages. When you had to be taken to the bathroom, we had to use an elaborate machine – kind of a crane for seniors. It hurt to look at this thing, to see your delicate sleeping frame being hauled like goods.

When the doctor did see you, it was the following Wednesday. She said you needed a hip x-ray. The machine was brought in the following day and it showed you had a broken hip.

You were taken to Sunnybrook hospital. They said they could operate and fix your hip, but if it had been a couple days later, they couldn’t have done it. If they did the operation, you might regain your previous mobility. If they didn’t, you’d never walk again. We decided you should get the operation.

Both your daughters came up, Heather and Alyssa. You were not conscious enough to respond to any of us. I took time off work. I would sit next to your bed and talk to you, but the only glimpses I got were the hint of a smile now and then.

The operation happened extremely late at night. We were there, waiting all day for it to happen. Finally they took you down. We followed, not knowing what to do with ourselves. One of the doctors came out and asked for us – you had become agitated as they moved you to the operating table. But finally it was done. We were told it could take hours and there was no point in staying, so we went home.

The next day we came in to find the operation had been a success. We waited for you to come to. Heather had to return to the states for her work. We waited the next day, and still you slept. The following day your breathing became laboured and your vitals got worse. They said you may have contracted pneumonia. We told Heather and she came back the following day.

The hip doctors had done their thing, and said you were now in the hands of the geriatrics. We waited for a visit from them. In the meantime we got a visit from another doctor. He introduced the idea of palliative care. You might very well recover, he said, but to some level below your previous baseline. And 50% of hip fractures over the age of 70 die within the year – it’s a sign of the body’s fundamental weakness. He put his hand on my shoulder. “Would your father want to live like this?”

I became angry. This was so obviously a speech he had given many times before, and his empathy was so manufactured. And how could we suddenly turn around and give up on you, after we had gone through all this? But at the same time the reasoning rang true. I felt like I was lost in a forest, and had just gotten my bearings to discover I was much further away from home than I thought. I might be angry about it, but it didn’t make me any closer to home.

Autodidacticism, The Internet Way, Wave, Waters of March

Have you ever talked to an autodidact? That’s someone who is self-taught. If you have a lot of knowledge on a subject, that you acquired through institutional educational means, and you talk to someone about it who has simply gobbled up whatever they could find in an undirected manner, you will find a lot of passion, obviously, but you will also find huge gaps in their knowledge. They will have assigned special significance to insignificant events, and completely missed hugely significant ones.

That autodidact? That’s me with most things. On the internet, rampaging through chains of links, gobbling up data, blowing past important doors, not going into them, not even noticing them. It’s probably all of us; it’s built into the medium. It’s a web, but you can’t follow every strand. You choose one, then another, then another, mistaking the path you took for The Only Way.

I love bossa nova. When I went to university I took some of my parents’ records with me and one was Wave by Antonio Carlos Jobim. I used to take naps to that motherfucker – it’s total elevator music; I have literally heard it playing in the supermarket – but it’s also beautiful, beautiful, rhythmic, symphonic. I have listened to many more bossa albums since then, and much more Brazilian music, but only today, in a Spotify web-strand-tugging escapade, do I find this song, considered “the all-time best Brazilian song” –

It’s written by Jobim; he did an English translation himself, and there are subtle and fascinating differences between the Portuguese and English versions, in part because rain in March means such difference things in the northern and southern hemispheres.

In summary: don’t take Brazilian music lessons from me, but here’s a beautiful song. And Happy March.

Something Important Happened 3

[Continued from here. All articles in this series will be archived here]

The building was still under construction when we took the tour, and it was just as under construction when you moved in. The inside was done, if sparsely decorated, but the gardens outside were unfinished. It was in an ex-industrial area of Scarborough. One of the neighbouring lots was a vast tract of under-construction townhomes. Another was an empty field apparently undergoing decontamination.

Pretty soon my mom had your room looking great, full of photos and paintings.

We had to buy you a wheelchair. It was an expensive, elaborate thing. You were permanently diapered, despite being continent when you were admitted. You could control your bowels and bladder but it could be a lot of effort getting you to the toilet and back because you were unstable on your feet.

Everyone on your floor was in a wheelchair. We began to wonder about that. My mom got in the habit of coming to see you every day around 3, and when she got there you’d be dying to take a leak. A lot of your fellow residents were always asking to be taken to the bathroom. The caregivers couldn’t seem to keep up. Dinners were theoretically at 5, but often it was 6 or 6:30 before you were served. There didn’t seem to be enough staff.

Months went by and the gardens outside were still ‘under construction.’ Ministry of Health officials were seen now and then, apparently evaluating the facility. You had a fall, but no big injuries. We asked about the toileting schedule. Apparently once every four hours was plenty. We objected. It was not until your daughter Heather, a doctor, visited that we got this reduced to two hours. They put a sign over your bed detailing this. No one seemed to notice. There was a high turnover rate in caregivers. We knew from talking to them that they were brutally overworked by the management. There were one or two amazing caregivers, and when they were on duty, my mom didn’t feel she had to be there as much. But they tended to quit before long.

I told you I had bought a house, and you asked, “does it have umps and muffles?”

Later you asked where my clothes were and I responded, I’m wearing them.

“No,” you clarified, “when do you close?”

Moments like that I would feel proud and elated that I had caught a glimpse of you. That beautiful smile of yours, that smile we can see in all your photos when you are looking at one of your children. That smile was still around.

I wondered what you thought about, how it felt to be you. I was pretty sure you could hear what I was saying, but your words came out all wrong. Did you know they were wrong, or did they sound right to you? We would always try and take you for a walk, but sometimes you would have trouble because the tiles on the floor seemed like rocks over a precipice. You would step gingerly from one black tile to the next.

When you were in bad shape, you simply slept, hunched forward in your wheelchair, drooling. If we weren’t there, we knew no one would wipe the spit away for hours.

That July, we celebrated your birthday. My other sister Alyssa was visiting with her kids. We booked the special room at the nursing home, and had a big meal, and cake. You seemed happy, despite everything.

Something Important Happened 2

[Continued from here. All articles in this series will be archived here]

After the first trip to the hospital you went back home. You said, “you really did it! You rebuilt it!” You thought it was a perfect replica of your house. I looked this up, it’s relatively common. it’s called reduplicative paramnesia.

Caregivers now came a few hours a day to help my mom.  It wasn’t enough. After a few weeks you nearly attacked one of them, and then you collapsed. So back to emergency.

After the second trip to the hospital you never went home again. The second time, it seemed like no one could find the records of the first time. They kept on asking the same questions.

There was no way to bring you back home. My mom was exhausted. You had a bizarre sleep schedule that involved early morning roaming, which given your shaky limbs (also part of the disease) meant my mom would have to wake and keep an eye on you, which meant that by the time of this second stay, she hadn’t had a good sleep in weeks.

They moved you to a place called Toronto Rehab, which had a floor for geriatrics. They took all the problem cases from nursing homes. The first time my girlfriend visited there she burst out crying. Many of the patients were far gone, difficult and screamy. There was a smell. But it was not a bad place – the nurses were incredible.

Your roommate Brian was deaf, blind and demented and he would call out to his dead wife in a boomy, old-style radio DJ voice. One time he started masturbating during dinner. A lot of us laughed.

They had you on anti-psychotics which made you much less prone to the sort of paranoid visions that had caused the two hospital visits. These were so uncharacteristic of you; it was a relief when they abated. You were quiet, withdrawn, and often amiable. Your awareness took on a multi-day cycle, from sleepy and unresponsive to borderline agitated a few days later. At your most aware you were unhappy with your situation. Who wouldn’t be – as a solidly independent man for the majority of your life, being so helpless must have enraged you.

Toronto Rehab was merely a temporary stop on a trip that would take you to a “long term care facility”, i.e. a nursing home. These things are often privately run, but in our province anyway the admissions list and the funding is administered by the government. You can choose three homes and then you go on a waiting list. My mom and I toured many facilities across the city. There are tons of them, huge buildings nestled into every community that you somehow never notice until you are looking for them. Most are horrible. Some are beautiful. The former have short waiting lists. The latter can take years. Of course we wanted the best for you, so we had you signed up for three homes with long waiting lists, the shortest being six months to a year.

In emergency situations – and in our province taking up a hospital bed like in Toronto Rehab is considered an emergency – you go on the ‘crisis list.’ This means you get priority placement ahead of anyone on the normal list. So you were on this special list, but even after two months passed there were still no openings for you. The government representatives started saying we’d have to choose somewhere with less of a wait or they would send us to the next available facility, meaning one of the horrible places.

We had seen a place in Scarborough that was a new building, beautiful and bright, that an older, previously all-female facility was in the process of moving into. It was far from us, but it seemed like a good place. They weren’t afraid to show us the dementia ward on the tour, which seemed refreshingly honest. So we signed you up, and a few weeks later you were moving in.

There turned out to be something wrong with this place.

Something Important Happened 1

Editor’s note: this is the first part of a five (maybe six?) part series about the death of my father that I started five years ago, shortly after it happened. It’s heavy! I won’t feel bad if you avoid reading it. But, the reason I share it here is that it might be helpful for those of you who have not gone through the death of a parent. It will probably happen to you at some point! It will not be exactly like my experience, but there may be similarities.

[All articles in this series will be archived here]

You’d complain about your memory. My role was to reassure. Don’t worry about it, I can’t remember anything either – it runs in the family. We’d laugh about the times we’d run upstairs to get something and then find ourselves standing there, trying to recall exactly what it was we had needed.

But on that trip you forgot your passport. So then they called it Mild Cognitive Impairment. They gave you exercises, and a book in which to write everything down. I tried to get you to play a brain-age game on my DS.

It was too late for all that. You stopped emailing because it took too much time. It could take you a while to string sentences together. After my weekly visit for dinner my mom would insist on driving me home, and would use the time to talk about how worried she was about you. Again, I was Captain Reassurance.

Finally it was Dementia with Lewy-Bodies – I joked darkly to myself that it sounded like a fast food order. Do you want the side order of muscle spasms or of hallucinations? it comes with both. Upgrade to aphasia for a dollar more.

The long retreat continued. Already a quiet man, you became even quieter. We told ourselves you were happy even if you weren’t talking. We said, if it was that hard for us to talk, we wouldn’t talk either. But when you did talk you were rarely yourself. When you did become animated, your words slipped so that your language became strange poetry. A Parkinsonian glaze covered your expression, and your body became frail – as if someone else, someone withered and wraithlike, was moving in to your body.

You saw things. You asked about my twin, said he had been around. You described coming down to the living room and seeing a group of strange people in it, silently staring at you. We realized later that it was much too late for you to go on that trip to visit with your daughters and their kids, and when you came back you were upset, muttering fearful things about shadowy officials foisting conspiracies. The Judge.

A few weeks later you freaked out. You ran out of the house screaming that someone was taking the children. We took you to the hospital. They began to tell us we should “consider” “long term care”.

The whole couple of days we were in there, you kept on trying to leave. You’d say, “c’mon, let’s go,” or “let’s get outta here.” It was so tempting to agree, to say “sure,” that word we so associated with you, that was so indicative of your easygoing nature – sure, let’s go, let’s leave this mess behind.

Oh the Humanity

We used to be told that the use of language is what distinguishes us from the animals. That was before we realized that dolphins were basically talking… and whales, birds, etc. etc. Or, humans use tools, no animal does that. Except chimps. And then was it opposable thumbs? Whoever thought that didn’t have raccoons prying open his green bin every night. I’ve also heard empathy proferred as the trait that earns us our “human” membership badge. Except… goddamn dirty apes again.

The Netflix doc series Cooked, an adaptation of Michael Pollan’s latest book, argues that cooking is what makes us human. Animals all eat raw food. Gorillas spend half their waking hours masticating. (And the other half masturbating? Sorry. Could not resist the punny punch-up opportunity.) Humans have smaller jaws and slenderer gut-zones and big juicy brains because it’s easier to ingest cooked stuff so we can get more energy into us to make our brains all big and juicy.

It’s a nice theory, and especially comforting for those of us who actually cook – but how long until they discover a raccoon who is loading garbage into a castoff crock pot? A chimp roasting chestnuts over an open fire? Fire Eagle, the Fire Breathing Eagle and Southern Barbeque Pitmaster? Or fucking bees, does that count?

Let me get ahead of this potential fiasco and list off some things that are still exclusive to humans so we can use it in our brand positioning:

Alternately we can stop fooling ourselves and just admit we’re stinky animals like everyone else, albeit better dressed.

Cartown Part 1

I have mixed feelings about cars, which really comes from my parents. My dad grew up in the midwest; when he was a teen he was a real gearhead and used to basically build cars from scratch. But he lived in NYC for ages and then downtown Toronto and was definitely fond of cities, bikes, walking etc. My mom grew up in Europe and her tastes for the different modalities of urban transport basically reflect that. When I was a kid we always had a car, but only one, and it was always an econobox, often used.

I grew up loving cars, being especially fond of identifying the different makes and models on the road. That was my go-to road trip game. In high school we all wanted them; we all had that traditional north american thing where the car is the symbol of adulthood, freedom, (social) mobility etc. We were jealous of the rich kids who got their own cars for their 16th birthdays. Yet maybe around university I stopped caring about them, and through a young adulthood of living in the city cores of Montreal and then Toronto it never seemed to make any sense to get one. I could have had a beater Dodge Colt hand-me-down from my folks in the mid-2000s and I tried it out for a bit and just got too many parking tickets and generally found it expensive and unneccessary. Not being much of a sportsman, I had come to rely on walking and biking for my exercise, and if I drove everywhere I’d have to either join a gym, take up a sport, do a shit ton of pushups at home, stop eating so many burgers, or get pretty fat? No thanks.

I think if you spend a lot of time in a car, you start to internalize the car’s point of view. The same is true of bikes, transit and walking. So over the years I developed a rather strong non-car perspective. Why was it ok that car “accidents” were the leading cause of death for young people? Why were street lights timed to cars and not pedestrians? Why did 150 people in a streetcar have to wait 1 minute for a single occupancy vehicle to turn left? Could the relationship between our relatively low gas taxes compared to Europe, our relatively high car dependence and our relatively high obesity be any clearer?

More tomorrow. Thrills, I know. But also, I promise this isn’t a car hater post (skip to 6:40 ish)…

Speed Racer 26  The Car Hater by clist007


If there were a scene in which the line “forget it, Jake, it’s Leslieville” were uttered, it would take place in front of a cupcake bakery, with a smokestack in the far background. We moved here five years ago when we bought our house, when it was one of two reasonably walkable neighbourhoods in Toronto that first-time buyers could afford (now, there are none). Originally one of Toronto’s streetcar suburbs, at the time we moved in, Leslieville had a lot of hype (NY Times article comparing it to Brooklyn and shit!), that left this city kid a little disappointed.

I grew up around Bathurst and Bloor, and post-college lived in apartments a little west of there. That area has plenty of bars and restaurants but also markets, supermarkets, flower stores and  stationery stores. It’s dense, and there’s a mix of uses (jobs as well as houses). In short, it’s a well-functioning, diverse urban environment. Leslieville five years ago seemed a little short of that. It had lots of pricey restaurants, mid-century modern antique stores, and cupcake bakeries, but no markets to speak of save for the massive, car-centered Loblaws along Lakeshore. Stores tended to be closed at odd hours. Weekday nights were deadsville. It was cupcake urbanism, more of a recreational destination for nearby neighbourhoods (I’m convinced half the patrons in Leslieville restos are actually from the Beach) than a functioning liveable hood.

That’s changed for the better since then. Condos have sprung up along Carlaw and elsewhere, and rental prices further west have gotten out of hand. The net result is more millenials moving in, which has helped the neighbourhood get denser and more lively. There are more options for smaller walkable markets now (and there not even all super-expensive!). Leslieville still doesn’t have enough jobs, which means fewer people here during the day, which makes it harder for local businesses to sustain themselves. But the studios along Eastern have been busier with the slide of the Canadian peso.

And there’s something nice about the concept of the streetcar suburb, a walkable area that is nonetheless less dense than the city core. There are several parks within walking distance of my house, and the beach a quick bike ride away. During these cold winter days I think longingly of the cycle tracks along Lakeshore. 

Editor’s note: I hummed and hawwed about this post because I don’t love it. It’s true, what it says, but it leaves too much out. Leslieville has a lot of interesting history, for example! Also, shitty ending. But, I’m doing a post a day, so gotta ship it out anyway! Sorry

US Primaries 2016

This the most entertaining and terrifying US election I remember. It’s fascinating from a Canadian POV. Bernie Sanders could be a middle-of-the-road member of two of our major parties (he’s pushing for single-payer health care, not nationalizing any industries – other than health care I guess!), and I feel like policy-wise he’s closest to what I want. But is he electable? Conventional wisdom would say the dems need a centrist, and a Clinton-Trump matchup seems to favour Clinton, whereas Trump vs Sanders scares me. But maybe the emerging Democratic majority has finally emerged, and it’s possible an avowed social democrat (democratic socialist?) can win…? Question mark? It still seems like that sentence needed a question mark.

On the republican side, it’s especially entertaining and terrifying. Part of me thinks Trump can’t call Mexicans rapists and win the election (if Republicans can’t win over Latinos, they can’t win Florida, which basically means they can’t win). So in some ways I want him to be the candidate. But having a crypto-fascist making it all the way to the general election is very scary. And most of his competitors are equally scary, especially “melting goblin” Ted Cruz (I did not invent that slur nor do I remember where I saw it – somewhere on Twitter – and I don’t like making fun of people’s looks, and that’s not why he’s scary, but it’s kinda funny – man this is an absurd parenthetical).

It just feels unpredictable, which is exciting. And terrifying.


If I were going to join a religion it would have to be something dedicated to the chef Mark Bittman. I’ve always wanted to be good at cooking but it didn’t seem to be in my nature. I was too slavishly devoted to the recipe. All I could do was follow it word for word. If I was missing one thing I didn’t know how to substitute and would wind up messing up. It wasn’t a resilient way to cook, but worse, it wasn’t any fun. And so I’d cook the handful of recipes I knew really well, and rarely try much else.

Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, in iPad form, changed all that. The way he presents recipes just clicked with my brain. He gives you a recipe in its most stripped-down form, and then presents a handful of variations. His stripped-down chili non carne, for example, not only omits the meat but also the tomatoes and almost everything other than spice and pinto beans. The variations add them back in and give you an option for “white chili” which I really need to try. It doesn’t hurt that he is a clear, concise and personable writer, but the proof is ultimately in the chili: I have gotten great results nearly every time with his recipes. And the whole approach has hammered into my mind that I can change any recipe I want to anything else. This has been a wonderful, life-transforming thing, no joke. Now I enjoy cooking. It’s not a grim word-for-word recitation, it’s a chance to explore.

The How to Cook Everything app is a little long in the tooth now (never got the iOS 7 makeover), but I still use it all the time. It’s also available in book form and it is ENORMOUS. It’s best thought of as a modern-day Joy of Cooking. He’s got other books, like Kitchen Matrix which takes his variations to their logical extreme. Come. Join me in the Church of Bittman.

Fairly skippable blog post here

Motherfucker I’m running behind here. Didn’t get a post done yesterday, nothing yet today. I was sick yesterday and EXTREMELY low energy. I have this excercise app that I got a few days ago and generally it is THRILLED with me. It’s all about the health benefits of a half hour of low impact exercise (walking) per day. Turns out I get a half hour just dropping the kid off at school and coming in to work. So this thing was logging me at 60, 90 minutes a day. I am ranked like #8 in the region! It’s hard to imagine it being hard to get a half hour of walking in – until you are sick in bed all day. I got like 10 minutes exercise. Not great. Today I drove so I’m only at 17. If you want to get a half hour of walking in DON’T DRIVE! So anyway the app keeps on sending these notifications, “maybe take a walk?” “Walk around the block?” “Time to stretch your legs”. Nag nag nag.

While sick I logged a lot of Jessica Jones. It’s a good show. I wasn’t hugely taken by Daredevil but JJ is more my speed. Writing and acting are higher quality, and it has that quality I love in imaginative stories – the fantastic as an attention-getting metaphor for very real, very human, very mundane stories. In this case a strong woman can’t come to terms with how an abusive partner was able to override her feelings and make her do things she didn’t want to do. JJ super power is physical strength, but not endurance; she can lift cars but still get shot, she can jump high but could break her legs on landing. Her nemesis is Killgrave, who can make people do whatever he wants. He’s the ultimate entitled white guy character. JJ is essentially a PTSD sufferer and is rendered accurately, movingly: drinking problem, fits of rage, overactive defense systems.

So that’s all the time we have for today – a jumbled piece of diarist crap that nonetheless fulfills my self-imposed quota!

Playing Daughter

She says to me, “want to play daughter”? Of course I do.

This means I will play the daughter and she will play the “momma”. So she gets to make all the rules, which is the whole point of the operation – a carnivalesque flip of the power dynamic.

She orders me to get into bed (the couch); she pulls a blanket over me.

“Read to me,” I say. I play my part by saying things she would say.

“No,” she says. “I won’t read to you because you didn’t listen to me.”

“I need a hug and kiss.”

“Hug but no kiss.”

She’ll enforce the pretend sleeping – if I open my eyes I find her standing over me, vigilant, ready to threaten the suspension of dessert prospects, or milk rights. But after a spell, after she’s put the pretend puppy to bed and she’s pretend slept herself, she wakes me up, and offers dinner. It’s really a plastic turkey on a plastic saucer, but that’s not how she spins it.

“Here, it’s pepperoni and cheese and watermelon and peanut pizza but I have to take off the peanuts because I’m allergic.”

After dinner we have to drive to a picnic. I sit on the floor and she straps me into the child seat with the sash from a bathrobe. She sits on a wood box, mimics the steering wheel, and makes maybe the cutest driving sound I have ever heard.

It’s all warped and distorted, but it’s clearly a portrait of her world. Little chores, duties, orders given. Punishments and rewards. Do we really seem this stern to her? Does she really think we’d serve her peanuts?

The journey takes about half a second. We get out and we go to the store to get food for the picnic. “Come with me!” she says, and opens the fridge. She starts looking for food.

Real food, I note.

I come out of character and insist certain things aren’t taken out of the fridge. It’s starting to look like the pretend picnic is morphing into real eating, as we’re playing to kill time while her mom makes dinner and she’s starting to get real hungry.

We negotiate, and settle on a handful of blueberries. I get four spoons as ordered, and a bowl. Pretty soon real dinner happens, and play stops. She’s not the boss anymore.

For now.

Spotify / Apple Music

I signed up for Apple Music when it came out and have been using ever since. I first tried Spotify about a year ago but didn’t pay for it; didn’t love it. I went back and started a trial of the pay version a couple weeks ago.

Streaming music is a tradeoff. On the one hand you get basically ALL MUSIC for cheap. On the other hand you don’t own any of it. That last part was a hangup for me as I am literally and figuratively very invested in my music collection. However I have tried to sidestep the issue by contemplating music’s fundamentally intangible quality. It’s, like, not really there and shit, so can you really own it anyway? Man?

You can certainly rent it from one of these two services.

I really enjoy hunting down music, so I wasn’t looking for any assistance with “music discovery”, but indeed that’s what impressed me right away about Apple Music. Like predecessor Beats Music, its claim to fame is its “curation” by “humans” and at first those hand-picked playlists were fun to explore. There weren’t really enough of them though. However, there are also algorithmic album suggestions which I found were quite good. Amusingly they often suggested albums I already had in my library; also amusingly, I actually found that useful.

Apple Music has huge problems, however. Firstly, on the Mac it’s grafted onto the aged iTunes, which is best imagined as an ancient, rickety donkey which has already had a whale, lion and giant squid grafted onto it. All of its knees have exploded and been put back together with duct tape.

Secondly, both iTunes and Music on iOS are buggy AF. I often try to go to an artist page only to get a completely blank one. Or, a song just stops playing halfway through (especially infuriating in the car or when my hands are in a sinkful of water). Or, some tracks are just greyed out for some reason on some days. Who knows. It’s like the back end just isn’t into it, like it’s being run by a bunch of sullen teens who keep on getting distracted by Snapchat or whatever.

But Spotify? Damn, son.

I didn’t like Spotify using the free version – poor sound quality plus ads every four songs or so made for a crappy experience. But once you pay up you’re good. If the “discovery” was good with Apple Music, with Spotify it is almost too good. I am finding a new, awesome artist like every day, and that seems constrained by my available attention bandwidth. Score this round to the machines.

I also like that I can make a playlist, that it is default public, and people can “subscribe” to it. On Apple Music it’s like only all-powerful yet anonymous genius types who can present you with playlists, but on Spotify anyone can “curate”, including your friends – which would seem to offer more value anyway, and be more analagous with the real world.

My only real complaint is that Spotify hasn’t bothered to get the “AllMusic”: licence. I stumble upon some new artist and I want to know a bit of background, and I keep on jumping out to Google. But that’s living. A++, highly recommended, would listen to again.

Two to Three

Was talking to a fellow dad at a party once and he asked how old my child was, and she was like 20 months at the time. He said that was an amazing age, between 18 months and 3 years. I had never heard that before. You hear about terrible twos, or that threes are actually worse, and that babies are horrible, etc. etc. (No, babies are not horrible, but they won’t sleep through the night for the first three months, and they won’t really acknowledge you for like six months or so.)

But the age he was talking about was so great because so many systems are coming online and develop at an incredible pace. Mobility and language are the big ones; the child has probably just managed to walk, but does it shakily at 18 months. Likewise it can string some words together, or maybe just lay down individual words. But by three this kid is going to be running, jumping, and motormouthing on and on, and seeing those skills come together is someting else.

I love when they don’t quite say things right. Yesterday I was tired and got sign-off on a nap. My daughter hadn’t gone down for hers yet. She looked at me, sighed and said, “okay, I’ll show you where your bed is.” She went up to the bedroom, started turning off the lights, and said, “I’ll turn the dark on for you.”

St Patrick's Square

Blogathon update: I don’t have much time today and I’m not feeling particularily content-generational so I went looking through my archive of draft posts and found this one from last summer about one of my favourite parks. I’ve added a little to it but it still doesn’t feel finished, but so be it.

The square is hidden, almost. It’s at the centre of a bustling downtown block, but it’s not visible from the street. You walk between two buildings, or down an alley, and there it is. It’s small, more a parkette than a park. But it is well-used by the groups that know about it: office smokers, the homeless, and birds. Occasionally a gaggle of newcomers will notice it from the market building that abuts its southern edge and abscond to the square to eat their lunch. I like to think they are bound to return.

The market building used to be an actual market which included a butcher that hung chicken corpses in the window. That space is now occupied by a bubble tea house and a bakery that sells cronuts. There are a couple other fast food-ish places – jerk chicken and somalian food – but much of the space is empty. It was much busier a decade ago, when Big Stan’s burger house and The Lunch Box lured in visitors, but the landlord raised the rent drastically and all of the tenants were forced to move. Apparently the landlord owns a club or two and is much more interested in those properties. He stores some surplus kitchen equipment in an unused portion of the market, which would be better used maybe on seating for the restaurants’ customers but oh well.

The jerk chicken restaurant occupies the space closest to the square and the smell of jerk dominates the air. It’s called The Jerk Joint and it is excellent. The chef gets in at 5:30 every morning and starts a laborious yet nose-pleasing series of smokings, rubs, and marinations. If you bring your jerk chicken to the square to eat you will surely be visited by wasps, and birds will gather about you eagerly. There are flocks of pigeons and sparrows in the rather ample canopy of the square – so much so that you should watch where you sit. A frosting of bird shit coats many of the benches and many parts of the concrete retaining wall that skirts the square.

There is a condo building on the western edge, next to the design store Umbra, and a strip of row houses to the east, which are largely split into rental apartments. In the north there is the butt end of a public pool building. Along the alleys that demarcate the edges of the park prowl infrequent service vans, cars pulling out of the condo parking, and the odd Mercedes belonging to a Queen Street restaurant owner.

Smokers descend from their creative-class office buildings and chat in groups, or pace while on the phone. If you’ve quit smoking but have temporarily relapsed, this is the place for you, away from the judgmental eyes of your co-workers. You can take a break and observe the migratory patterns of the birds or the homeless. The park tends to house only one or two homeless people at a time. There are more later in the day, but it usually sleeps only one or two. Last summer there was a masked transgendered homeless who slept in the middle of the open area of the park. She had a friend stay with her for a few days, and then he was gone, and then she was gone. This summer there is an old man on a bike, who sleeps on one of the benches in the shady area at the south end. He is very polite, and collects bottles from the condo recycling bins.

The park has a dense tangle of trees, landscaping, paths and benches in its south end. Its middle is largely open, a sun-trap mini-field that gets little play in the summer. The north end by the pool building has a ring of seating and if it has a primary use, it’s weed smoking. The concrete mini-wall along the edges of the park means that there’s almost always somewhere to sit.

If you’re ever around Queen and John and you need some refuge from tourists, shopping and nose rings, wander north-east a touch. This could be the place for you.