Red flags and bullet dodging

As part of our recent (and ongoing, as of this writing) home renovations, we decided to sell the antique dining room set that my parents gave us around fifteen years ago. We loved the set but simply no longer had a place to put it. I talked to my dad to make sure he didn’t want it back, but neither he nor my sister had any place for it either. We called a couple of antiques dealers but they said that dining room sets rarely sell anymore. One of them said they wouldn’t take it at all, and the other said they might be able to give us $300 for the whole set.

We were disappointed so we decided to try and Facebook Marketplace to see if we could get something more. I listed the set at a very optimistic $1000. I figured if it didn’t sell, I could drop the price by half and still get more than the dealers offered. After a week of silence, I lowered the price to $700. A couple of days after that, I received two separate messages, thirteen minutes apart, from the same guy. They were worded slightly differently; one said:

Graeme, I’m very interested! Please contact me if this is still available. My name is [removed], my cell number is [removed] and my email is [removed]. I noticed that you lowered your price. I will be more than prepared to restore the original price and more.

Right away I was suspicious. The first red flag: it looked like he has two stock messages that he sends for such things and accidentally sent both. If I sent two responses saying the same thing, I’d probably delete one of them. Trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe it was an honest mistake – he responded but then a weird thing happened on the web site and he wasn’t sure if it went through, so he had to rewrite it. No big deal.

The second (and bigger) red flag: he’s not only willing to pay more than the advertised price but with no prompting, he offers to pay more. Perhaps he really likes the set and wants to make absolutely sure he gets it. But if that’s the case, I would think you’d wait to see if there is any competition – why pay more if you don’t need to?

Scam Alert

I responded saying that the set was still available but that it was packed away in a trailer so he may not be able to see it for a couple of weeks. He responded that he was moving to London (Ontario) in a couple of weeks so that might work out well. Then I had a change of heart (don’t let the buyer forget about the thing you’re selling, strike while the iron is hot, all that sort of thing) and told him we could unpack the trailer easily and he could see it anytime he wanted. The next couple of messages raised a couple more red flags:

Hi Graeme, I’ve been viewing so many items on kijiji today, I’ve forgotten which dining room set it is and the asking price. Perhaps you could help. Also, in which city are you located?

I’m not entirely sure why this was a red flag, and perhaps if red flags 1 and 2 weren’t there this wouldn’t have been a problem, but it just increased my already growing suspicion. I sent him the link to the kijiji page and told him I lived in Waterdown. He responded again:

The earliest I could be there is Saturday, November 17, 2018. … I will contact my relatives in Waterdown to see if they could assist. … I could transfer the money through an e-transfer, send a courier to your location (not Canada Post), or whatever.

Since I was already suspicious, this raised a few more red flags. First, who includes the full date including the year in an email like this? I’d have said something like “The earliest I could be there is Saturday (the 17th)”. Second, he really has relatives in Waterdown? Waterdown is not a big place. The original ad said “pickup in Waterdown”, so you’d think if he had relatives living here, he’d have remembered what town it was (i.e. “Oh, he’s in Waterdown. Uncle Bob lives in Waterdown”) Maybe he’s got relatives all over this area so that didn’t narrow it down.

And finally, he offered to e-transfer the money and send a courier to pick up the set. Sending money by e-transfer isn’t a problem, I’ve sent and received money that way many times, but the courier thing bothered me. I don’t know exactly what’s wrong with it or how he could scam me using that method but the fact that he didn’t seem to want to meet in person raised a big red flag. Perhaps he’d tell me he’d transfer the money but not do it before the courier arrived. Maybe he figured that I’d want to avoid inconveniencing the courier by letting him take the set before payment was verified.

I responded again saying Saturday would be fine but I would only accept cash. He said that cash was no problem. This all happened on Sunday the 11th and I heard nothing from him all week.

On Friday, I sent him two messages asking what time on Saturday he was coming. After receiving no response, I sent another on Saturday morning saying that if I didn’t hear back I’d assume he was no longer interested. I finally got a response on Saturday afternoon:

I apologize Graeme. I have neglected to do several things lately, yours included. My second round of chemo for my cancer has been difficult. I regret not being able to view, and likely purchase the items. But at this time, I will have to decline this offer. Thank you anyway.

Even more red flags.

We got a message in the middle of all this from someone else expressing interest in a much more typical fashion with no red flags, but Gail and I had enough hackles raised at this point that we both wondered if she was affiliated with the first guy. “I’ll get him excited about a sale and then drop out suspiciously, and you be the “good cop” and come in to save him, then he’ll fall all over himself selling to you. Then you write him a cheque that bounces after we have the set and we’re done.” Luckily, the second person actually did buy the dining room set and that transaction went smoothly. Ironically, she sent the money by e-transfer and sent movers to pick up the set, but before that, she showed up in person to look at it. I received the payment days before the movers arrived, and there were exactly zero red flags with her or her husband.

I still have no real proof that this was a scam, just lots of red flags, but I still feel like we dodged a bullet by not selling to this guy. It’s highly possible that this is a totally innocent exchange that I’m misinterpreting. If it is, then I apologize, Mr. potential buyer. I hope the move to London goes well, I hope the chemotherapy does its job, and I hope you find another dining room set for your new place.

But if not, then you can go to hell.


TV Review: Star Trek

I’ve been a huge fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation since it debuted in 1987. I own the series on DVD, I’ve seen every episode many times, and have even written a couple of articles about it. I’ve also watched and loved the subsequent series and movies. But here’s a little-known fact for ya: did you know that there was another Star Trek series before TNG?

I did not grow up as a Star Trek fan. I never watched the show when I was a kid, or even as a young adult. I did watch and enjoy the movies, and so I knew all of the characters from there but other than that, by the time TNG started, here’s what I knew about the original series:

  • “Space… the final frontier.”
  • Captain Kirk was popular with the ladies, particularly those with green skin (Bones’s “what is it with you, anyway?” in ST:IV was classic)
  • The visual effects were not very good
  • The theme song had no words but did have a woman singing “ahhhhhh” over the music
  • I had a vague idea what Tribbles were
  • There was apparently an episode with Khan in it
  • They went where no man had gone before while the TNG crew went where no one had gone before

That’s about it.

Captain KirkSo a while ago I decided to take full advantage of my Netflix subscription. I was going to see what the big deal was and watch every episode of Star Trek. I didn’t binge-watch it; it took me several months to get through all three seasons. Here are my thoughts. In a nutshell, it was OK. It was ground-breaking in some ways, and hopelessly dated in others. Some of the stories were interesting and clever, others were silly and inane. Long story short: I’m glad I watched it, but I doubt I’ll be watching it again.

Good stuff

Let’s start with the positives. Some of the episodes contained some very good storytelling. There were a few really interesting and thought-provoking episodes that reminded me quite a bit of TNG. “A Taste of Armageddon” was a new twist on a war story, “The Paradise Syndrome” showed a different side of Kirk, and “The City on the Edge of Forever” was the quintessential time travel paradox story. William Shatner is often criticized (though sometimes also lauded) for his overacting, but there are a number of some occasions where he is very good. Leonard Nimoy shows that he’s a great actor by keeping a straight face as much as he does.

Having a black woman, an Asian, and a Russian as major and important characters at that time was ground-breaking, so full props to the writers and producers and such for that. There were episodes that dealt with anti-Semitism and racism; in one, Spock explicitly mentioned racial bigotry as “distasteful”. In the late 1960’s, that was a big deal.

I thought the introduction of the Prime Directive was very interesting. The United States is known (rightly or wrongly) as a country that likes to project its own values onto the rest of the world – if “they” don’t think the way “we” think, they’re wrong. Star Trek was on during the war in Vietnam, and many said that Americans had no business being there at all. In contrast, the Federation has a rule that they will not interfere in the affairs of other cultures. For Roddenberry to state this rule and make it the Federation’s top priority (their “prime directive” you might say) was quite the political statement.

For all the hand-to-hand fighting and phasers and photon torpedoes, Kirk and the crew did attempt to solve a lot of problems without violence. We didn’t see “we’re more powerful than you, so you better do things our way”. Weapons were a last resort, most of the time, and there were even times when they were faced with violence but didn’t fight back.

Bad stuff

Now onto the negatives.

Captain Kirk’s vocal style and occasional mid-sentence pauses were a little odd and has become fodder for many. William. Shatner. Impressions. But in general, I barely noticed it. Usually his overacting was no big deal (and as I said above, sometimes he was very good) but other times the overacting was quite a ways over. Leonard Nimoy and George Takei were very good acting-wise, Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig were pretty good as well, but I found the acting of DeForest Kelley and James Doohan was just OK.

Despite all of the forward-thinking I mentioned above, the treatment of women on the show was firmly set in 1967. Every woman who was in trouble needed to be saved by a man. Every woman who was an enemy could be swayed by Captain Kirk’s manliness. In a few episodes, Chekov was even more of a horn-dog than Kirk. I shook my head every time a cute yeoman gave Kirk a box to sign and his eyes lingered on her a little too long as she walked away. In one episode, he even made a comment to Spock and McCoy about the yeoman that was a double-entendre which was probably mildly amusing in 1967 but made me uncomfortable.

The visual effects in general were terrible. The beaming of people wasn’t bad for the time and external shots of the Enterprise in space were usually pretty decent, but I laughed whenever someone fired a hand phaser. Great visual effects aren’t mandatory if the story and writing is good but many of these effects were bad enough that they took you out of the story. I realize the show was on a tight budget but every planet they beamed down to looked exactly the same (most were a rocky desert with a red sky), except for the ones that looked like Earth. They even mentioned in one episode how amazing and against the odds it was that this planet looked so much like Earth, while having been to three other such planets in the previous five episodes.

Kirk fights a GornFight scenes were usually pretty bad too. The choreography and stunt doubles were far too obvious and once again, pulled you out of the story. If you’re going to have people fight with swords or knives, at least replace the clicking sounds of the wooden blades hitting each other with metallic sounds. The Vulcan neck pinch is implausible, but I’m willing to suspend that much disbelief. But knocking someone out with a karate chop to the neck is just funny.

I didn’t mind Dr. McCoy in the Star Trek movies. His semi-playful verbal sparring with Spock was amusing, and I liked him even more in the reboot movies (Karl Urban). But in the series, it seemed over the top – nothing Spock did was good enough for McCoy and he was more hostile in many cases than I thought the situation warranted. Despite the anti-racism messages of some episodes, Dr. McCoy’s continual talking about Spock’s ears and making comments like “are you out of your Vulcan mind?” made McCoy look like an old-time southern racist. After watching the series, I ended up liking Spock more and McCoy less.



I’d have to watch all of the episodes again at least once to come up with actual favourites, but here are some episodes I enjoyed: Miri, Space Seed, A Taste of Armageddon, This Side of Paradise, The Devil in the Dark (the Horta was the most hilariously terrible alien but the story was good), City on the Edge of Forever, Journey to Babel, Elaan of Troyius, All Our Yesterdays, Turnabout Intruder.

Episodes I didn’t like:

  • Amok Time. Spock must mate or die. This is so critical that he hijacks the Enterprise and once Kirk finds out what’s going on, he risks his career and his own life to save his friend’s life. First off, it makes no sense that a species would evolve that way, but whatever. As soon as they arrive on Vulcan, Spock’s symptoms disappear. For the rest of the episode, even when fighting Kirk, he seems in no danger of dying. In the end, he doesn’t mate and doesn’t die. And everything that happens in the ceremony is as far from logical as you can get (the bride is allowed to choose someone who must fight the groom to the death?) but the Vulcans are OK with it. That is explained away by the Vulcans saying “yeah, this part of Vulcan culture isn’t all that logical but hey.” Almost every part of that episode made me think “Oh come ON.”
  • Assignment: Earth was supposed to be a pilot for a spinoff series that never happened. I thought it was terrible.
  • Is There in Truth No Beauty? – an alien so ugly it drives humans insane? Come ON.
  • Spock’s Brain – Come ON.
  • There were a couple of time travel episodes where they explained it away with “Captain’s Log: We’ve travelled back in time…” as if this is something they can do at will.

I realize I’m comparing this fifty-year-old show that had a small budget and crew and didn’t gain huge popularity until a decade after it was cancelled with newer series with much bigger budgets. TNG was thirty years ago but had the highest budget of any TV show at the time. So it’s possible that my expectations are too high and I’m being unfair. In fact, I’m sure that’s the case.

Like I said, I likely won’t be watching it again. However, if you grew up watching it, I can certainly understand how this show would hold a special place in the your heart.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (SPOILERY review)

A couple of years ago, I wrote a spoiler-filled review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. At the end, I said “Only a little over 500 days until Episode VIII comes out!”. That 500 days has elapsed, and so here is my spoiler-filled review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. WARNING: In case you missed it, this article is filled with spoilers so if you haven’t seen the movie, bookmark this page, stop reading now (well, at the end of this sentence), go see it, and then come back.

Continue reading

Tool review: Aeries for twitter

A bunch of years ago, I did some comparisons between popular twitter applications. My choice at the time was MetroTwit, which looked great and had lots of well-thought-out features. I eventually paid for the “Plus” version which removed all advertising and allowed you to deal with multiple twitter accounts.

But a few years ago, the guys who developed MetroTwit suddenly quit due to changes in Twitter’s policies on users. Luckily the app continued to work, but new features supported by twitter were not integrated into the application. So when Twitter started removing links and user account names from the 140 limit, MetroTwit tried to handle it as best it could but sometimes I had to go directly to the Twitter web site to see the full text of a tweet or continue a conversation. It would also notify me of mentions but sometimes I didn’t get notified of retweets. None of these problems was a big deal and I continued to use MetroTwit.

But recently, Twitter expanded the tweet length to 280 characters from 140, and now a much larger percentage of the tweets I see in MetroTwit are truncated with a link to the web site to see the rest. This has made the app basically unusable, so I need a replacement. Using the twitter web page directly isn’t as bad as it used to be, but being able to split the timeline into columns is invaluable so I really need an app.

After some googling, I came across one called Aeries, described simply as “the best Twitter client for Windows”. One of the first drawbacks of this app is the lack of any trial software, meaning that in order to see what it’s like you have to buy it. It’s $3 or something, so not a big deal, but it would have been nice to try it out first.

One of Aries’s features is the ability to customize how it looks – font size, image size, colours, stuff like that. But it seems to me that basic functionality was skipped while they worked on customization.


  • It does look great and the ability to customize font and image sizes and such is very nice. I just don’t think that should come at the expense of basic functionality.
  • When you leave the app running for a while, or minimize it, it keeps each column (roughly) where it was when you last looked, and updates the unread count for each one as new tweets arrive. You can then scroll up to see new stuff and the unread count drops as you see new stuff.


  • No autocomplete of twitter handles. This should be an absolute requirement of any twitter app.
  • The app crashes every time I switch users
  • Cannot re-order columns. There’s an up/down arrow icon in the setup page but clicking on it or grabbing and dragging it does nothing.
  • You can have a column containing all of your lists (with a small menu at the top for switching between them) but not just one column with a single list
  • You change the contents of columns and add and remove them, but you have to restart the app to see the changes
  • There’s a way to see all the tweets that I’ve liked but no way to be notified when someone likes my tweets
  • The columns are all the same width and cannot be resized
  • There are no tooltips on any buttons. Some are obvious but others aren’t and there’s no way to find out what one does without clicking on it
  • It doesn’t yet handle display or posting >140 character tweets. This is not a big deal (yet) since that ability is very new. But it better show up within a week or two (Update: two weeks later, still nothing.)
  • Clicking a link in a tweet does nothing
  • I have one column with all my lists. In the menu bar thing on the left, each list is shown with an unread count. But each list shows the unread count for the list being displayed, so they all have the same number.
  • Retweets may show up in two columns (i.e. “Home” and a list), but they sometimes look different. If the original tweet had an image, sometimes you see it, sometimes not, or they may be displayed differently.
  • No way I could find to check for updates to the app.
  • I tweeted a couple of questions to @AeriesWindows and got no response.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I originally downloaded Aeries and I have since gone back to the “unusable” MetroTwit. Long tweets are not directly supported, but they show up truncated with a link to Some of them I just ignore, but for others I click on the link and read it on the twitter web site. Other than one check this morning to see if it had updated with 280-character support (nope), I haven’t even launched the Aeries app in a week. Meanwhile the Aeries team has my money.

Ten things I hate about Star Trek: The Next Generation

I posted recently about how TNG is my all-time favourite TV show. They say you don’t know something well enough if there aren’t a few things you hate about it. I think the quote I heard was originally referring to programming languages, but it probably applies to lots of things. Here are some pet peeves about TNG, in no particular order.

I’ve excluded the one that bugs everybody: how every species looks like humans with different ears or a modified nose or forehead. That’s explained by the episode The Chase: an ancient humanoid species seeded the galaxy with their own DNA and so many species started off the same and evolved slightly differently over time. Obviously.

Note that some of these apply to other Star Trek shows, like Deep Space Nine or Voyager, and the movies as well. #1 even occurred in the very first episode of Star Trek: Discovery.

1. Radiation sickness

They seem to treat radiation like something that builds up in your body, with no ill effects, for some predetermined (and precise) period of time and then suddenly kills you. Doctor Crusher or the computer will call out “four minutes until fatal radiation exposure”, but everyone is perfectly fine. In reality, of course, it’s gradual and nobody can predict with that level of accuracy when the dosage becomes fatal. But if you’re four minutes away from lethal exposure, you should already be very sick. At least in Discovery, the person did actually get sick, but on one episode of TNG, the entire crew were minutes away from lethal radiation exposure, then managed to get away from the radiation source in time, and nobody got sick.

2. Data and the computer don’t interface well

In a few episodes, Commander Data sits down at a keyboard and types impossibly fast, or audibly tells the computer to do something. Why? Surely wireless technology in the 24th century is good enough that he can communicate with the main computer much faster than any tactile or vocal interface.

Tell me again why our ship's counsellor has a seat on the bridge

3. Infinite power

Everything that can be done electronically is done electronically. You don’t push a door open, you either walk up to it and it opens, or if it’s a private door (i.e. to someone’s quarters), you press a button and it opens. You don’t flip a switch to turn lights on, you tell the computer to do it. In Star Trek: First Contact, Lily notices that the big window she’s looking through has no glass and Picard tells her it’s a force field. Why wouldn’t you use glass (or clear plastic or “transpari-steel” or whatever) rather than require constant power just to keep the room from depressurizing? (I guess there was a retractable cover which would likely be closed most of the time, but still.) I would hate to be in that room if there was a power failure.

One of the best examples of this is the holodeck. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to spend time in one of these, and they serve a useful purpose in many episodes. I don’t even have a problem with their recreational uses. And if you’re stuck for subject matter, you can write a whole episode around it. But they described a holodeck as something that not only uses force fields and holograms to simulate things but in some cases also converts energy directly to matter. This would require an unbelievable amount of energy. You know, E=mc2 and all that, right? In some episodes (more so on Star Trek: Voyager but on TNG as well), the ship is low on power but the holodecks are still working. Those should be the first things to get shut down if you’re rationing power.

Speaking of the holodeck, I have some questions on how it works. People can walk on the holodeck for long periods of time, and they explain it by saying that the holodeck adjusts the force fields to make them work like treadmills so people feel like they’re constantly walking. But what if two people walk in different directions? Say Troi and Riker enter the holodeck and simulate a football field. Troi walks to one end zone and Riker the other. How does the holodeck make each look smaller to the other when they’re not actually 100 yards apart? If Troi shouts at the top of her voice, how does the holodeck make it so that Riker – who is physically separated from her by at most the width of the room – hears her as if she were 100 yards away? There have been episodes where someone walks into the holodeck looking for someone and shouts their name several times to try and find them. Knowing the actual size of the room they’re in, how is that possible?

4. The transporter

There have been a few episodes where someone’s DNA was modified, usually through a transporter accident, and the person experienced immediate changes. Even worse, they later used the transporter to restore their DNA and solve the problem. In one case, they used the transporter to restore Dr. Pulaski to an earlier version of herself after exposure to a virus or something caused premature aging. She was totally fine afterwards. DNA is a molecule that resides within each and every cell of any living being. Yes, it’s responsible for determining many of your characteristics from height and hair colour to how susceptible you are to various diseases. But it’s not something you can tweak with immediate effects. And if they could use the transporter to “beam” Dr. Pulaski younger, why would anyone ever age – or suffer any disease at all? They could just use the transporter to revert them back to before they had the disease.

5. Data and the crew don’t interface well

In the first season of TNG, Data seems like a naïve but very smart child. He knows facts and can calculate things but doesn’t know much about human behaviour. Over the next few years, he learns a lot and becomes less awkward. But as of season one, he’s already been in Starfleet for over twenty years. Does it make sense that after that long, he’s still that naïve? Does it makes sense that he learns more about people in the next 3-4 years than he had in the previous 20? After two decades in Starfleet, he still thinks “how long until we reach the starbase?” requires an answer including fractions of a second?

6. Nebulae

In a number of episodes, the Enterprise enters a nebula, which is a large cloud of interstellar dust. Each nebula has a distinct border and once inside, sensors and visibility are somewhat blocked (completely, partially, or not at all, depending on what the plot requires), similar to a plane flying through a cloud. In reality, a nebula is indeed a cloud of dust but in astronomical terms, “dust” is pretty much anything bigger than a molecule. Large collections of dust, usually thousands or millions of light-years wide, can be seen from great distances because of the way the particles affect the light passing through them, but up close, they’re nothing like a cloud. You could be in the middle of a nebula and not know it. They aren’t anywhere near as thick and soupy as portrayed in the Star Trek universe.

7. Gravity

Note: This isn’t specific to TNG by any stretch. It shows up in just about every other sci-fi movie and show as well – Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, etc.

All of the planets and ships (even the non-human ships) the crew visits have exactly the same gravity. Even the smallest shuttlecraft have artificial gravity generators. The artificial gravity generators never fail (except in Star Trek VI) – even when life support is failing and everyone is struggling for breath, artificial gravity is still working perfectly. I totally understand why they do this – filming anything with a different level of gravity would be difficult, expensive, or both – but it’s still a bit predictable.

8. Measurements of time and distance

Language is similar to the gravity issue: every species speaks English. On TNG, that’s mostly explained away by the universal translator, which also never fails. But every species also uses Earth-specific units for time and distance. A light-year is a measure of distance based on how long it takes Earth to go around its sun. A parsec is also Earth-specific, as are measurements of time like days and hours. Why would Romulans or Ferengi use them? Sometimes an alien refers to “one of your hours” or “an Earth day” or something but they never say “you have one of our shmlergs to respond”, leaving the Enterprise crew to find out how long a shmlerg is. However, Klingons have used a unit of distance called, I believe, a “kellicam”.

9. Alien species and stereotypes

The Ferengi are described as a greedy species who are only interested in acquiring wealth. The Klingons are only concerned with honour and being a warrior. Betazoids are telepathic and are usually the peacemakers and diplomats. But how did any of these species advance to where they are without having a wide range of individuals? The Klingons have cloaking technology and warp drive, so there must be Klingon scientists and engineers. But if there is no honour in dying of old age even after having been a warrior all your life (a warrior must die in battle), how is there honour in studying warp field theory? How does the Ferengi chain of command function if it’s widely known that every officer can be bought (and according to their culture, should be able to be bought)  for the right amount of profit?

10. Drama

People can just tap their badges and talk to anyone, but sometimes they’re not very helpful. Riker calls Picard from engineering or cargo bay 2 or wherever because something odd is happening. Picard asks what’s going on and Riker just says “I think you should see this for yourself”. Picard says “on my way” and heads down, not having the slightest idea what he’s in for. He can’t think about the situation on the way down or even know whether he needs to go down at all. His real answer should be “drop the dramatics and Just tell me what the hell is happening.”

Make it so

This past week was the thirtieth anniversary of the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which probably takes the prize as my favourite TV series of all time (sorry Firefly). I was in first-year university at the time (wow, does that ever make me feel old), and it was a big deal for us; the TV room on the North E floor of Village Two was quite full as we were all introduced to Captain Picard, Riker, Data, Geordi, and the rest of the gang. I remember not liking the shape of the Enterprise at first: the saucer was far too big. After a while though, I got used to it and now it’s the quintessential spaceship.

I was never a big Star Trek (the original series) guy, and to this day I have only seen a few episodes. I did like the movies though, so I was excited about the debut of TNG. Thinking back, it was a big part of my university years. Throughout my time at Waterloo, TNG was must-see TV as often as it was on. My roommates and I would watch it every night at dinner; one benefit of it being in syndication from the get-go was that you could see reruns several times a day if you looked, even only a couple of years into the show’s run. I worked for Microsoft in Redmond, Washington for four months, and a bunch of us got together on Sunday nights to watch TNG.

The gang

After I graduated, I worked at Corel in Ottawa for a year, and one of my co-workers had one of them thar newfangled satellite dishes. I don’t know how it’s done now, but at the time the networks would broadcast shows over satellite in advance (on Thursday, if memory serves) to the local stations, who would record it and then re-broadcast it later (Sunday night). My co-worker would record it from the satellite and then on Friday at lunch, we’d watch it in one of the big presentation rooms at Corel. This was before big-screen TVs, but we had a “video wall” which consisted of 25 TVs in a 5×5 array, and they all collectively acted like a single screen. It was then that I really discovered the background ship noise during the show – the presentation room also had a “bass cannon”, which was a huge horizontal cylindrical subwoofer which must have been six feet long. This was also my first exposure to surround sound, and because we had the special satellite feed, there was a sound check track at the beginning. But it wasn’t just beeps or some guy talking to separate the channels: they had gotten Michael Dorn to do it in his Worf voice. Imagine Worf’s deep silky smooth voice saying: “THIS is the left channel. THIS is the right channel. Center. And surround.” At the time, “surround” was a single channel which had not yet been split into left and right. I guess this was 4.1 surround.

When the series ended in 1994, I was at the University of Western Ontario doing my master’s degree. Gail and I watched the series finale (and a few other episodes) at the Grad Club in Middlesex College.

TNG was the first series I knew of to appear on DVD, and I bought every season as it was released – at about $100-120 per season. I’ve gone through all seven seasons several times, and my kids have been through at least twice as well.

At the time, I’m sure I thought every episode was awesome but it wasn’t until I had seen lots of reruns that I started to recognize the really good ones from the not-so-good ones. Honestly, a number of episodes in the first season really weren’t very good, but the quality picked up in season two. Dr. Pulaski replaced Dr. Crusher in the second season; I wasn’t a fan of Dr. Pulaski and it turned out neither was anyone else.

Season three is when the series really started to get good, and the the next four seasons were excellent. The characters had been fleshed out enough that there were very few occasions when one of the main characters would do or say something that made us think “that’s out of character”. The stories were usually well thought out and many episodes had two storylines: one technical and one personal. The technical stories were sometimes solved through “techno-babble” (aha, they reversed the polarity of the dilithium matrix and reconfigured the main deflector to send a neutrino pulse. Good thinking) but the personal ones never were. I thought the quality began to go downhill a bit in season seven, so perhaps they ended the series at just the right time.

The EnterpriseMy favourite episodes by season:

  1. 11001001 (the one with the Bynars), Where No One Has Gone Before
  2. Loud as a Whisper, Peak Performance, The Royale, The Measure of a Man
  3. The Enemy, The Vengeance Factor, The Survivors, Captain’s Holiday, Yesterday’s Enterprise, The Offspring, The Best of Both Worlds
  4. Remember Me, Future Imperfect, Clues, Redemption
  5. Darmok, Disaster, Conundrum, Cause and Effect (very clever), I Borg, Time’s Arrow, The Inner Light
  6. Rascals, Chain of Command, Ship in a Bottle, Tapestry, Starship Mine, Frame of Mind, Timescape, Descent
  7. Gambit, Parallels, All Good Things…

The Inner Light is regarded by many as one of the best TNG episodes, and I must concur. The story was thought-provoking and rather sad, and Patrick Stewart was outstanding. I still tear up a little at the end when Picard realizes the purpose of the probe they’re launching.

The series was followed by four TNG-cast movies, which oddly followed the same pattern as the previous six original-cast movies: the even-numbered ones were much better than the odd-numbered ones. Generations wasn’t bad but had some big plot holes. First Contact was excellent. Insurrection… I barely remember. Nemesis was pretty good and featured a young Tom Hardy (Bane without the bulk) as the bad guy.

There were a few things I didn’t like about the show, but I think I’ll leave that for another article. For now, I’ll just stick with “It’s the best show ever” and leave it at that. If you haven’t watched the episodes I listed above, you should head over to Netflix and check them out. Make it so.

Mental illness, medication, and the elephant in the room

Mental illness has always been the elephant in whatever room you’re in. Many people know someone who suffers from it but are still uncomfortable talking about it. The words “crazy” and “wacko” are often still used to describe people with mental illness – not exactly conducive to open discussion and helping people admit that they are struggling. But it’s worse than that because other than perhaps bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, many mental illnesses are looked at as something that you can overcome if you just try hard enough.

People with depression are told that they should just not be so sad all the time and think about all the good things in their lives. People with anxiety should try to relax and not get so worked up about things. Many think that ADHD doesn’t even exist because everyone gets distracted now and again. Mental illness is seen as a weakness of character, not an actual illness. On the other hand, people with more physical ailments such as cancer or MS are always described as courageous and strong and are given as much support as they need. Nobody suggests that people who are deaf or blind should just work harder and concentrate more and then they’ll be fine.

Bell Let’s Talk day is a day in January every year when Bell Canada donates money for each social media post that uses the #BellLetsTalk hashtag. Since 2010, Bell has donated over $80 million to various mental health initiatives. I see hundreds of tweets on those days talking about mental illness, and it seems that it’s something that many people secretly (and not-so-secretly) battle with, or know someone who does. (I’ve also seen people who refuse to participate, thinking it’s a big ad campaign for Bell Canada. Maybe it is, but who cares? If they’re donating millions to charity and getting people to openly talk about mental health because of it, I’m happy to give them some free advertising.) You also see lots of Facebook posts and blog articles by and about people who suffer from depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, and many other mental illnesses, discussing how they cope and how and where they get help. A lot of people feel empowered and courageous enough to “come out” and publicly admit and discuss their illness, and I think this is fantastic. At the end of January, everyone’s on board and it gives one hope that the stigma is finally on the way out.

The rest of the year is a different story. That’s not to say that everyone reverts back to “crazy people are just weak minded” but for many, the stigma comes back. And I’m sure many don’t even know it.

ADHDMy two kids were each diagnosed with ADHD around grade four (for posterity, Ryan’s currently in grade twelve and Nicky grade nine), and both have been taking daily medication since their diagnosis. The medications have changed over the years as well as the dosages, but both still take it every day. Gail and I are not embarrassed by this and neither are the boys; it’s just part of life for them. It’s never been a “family secret”, though I did confirm with them that they are OK with me explicitly making it public here. The medication helps them to be more focused and more able to tune out distractions. Nicky can also get “fidgety” and it helps with that as well. It doesn’t turn them into perfect children, nor do we expect it to. And it does not turn them into zombies, at least not any more than any other teenager with a smartphone.

Note that ADHD is a real condition and fMRI scans can show real physical differences between the ADHD brain and the “normal” brain. Nobody is saying that any kid who ever gets distracted has ADHD and needs medication, any more than anyone who ever gets sad about anything has depression and needs medication. The “disorder” part means that it happens far more often than in other people – often enough to negatively affect your day-to-day life.

Anyway, like I said, their ADHD and medication are not secret and so now and again the topic comes up in conversation with family members, friends, co-workers, and occasionally even strangers. When it does, I am amazed at how often people ask about the meds. Do they take the medication every day? Do they take it on weekends or over the summer when they’re not in school? Will they have to take it for the rest of their lives? I constantly wonder why people are so interested in my kids’ medication schedule.

Of course, they’re not interested in when they take it, they’re interested that they take it. I’m sure some are just curious but I frequently feel judged, as if they’re asking “You don’t give your children prescription drugs for such a mild condition, do you? And every day?!” I’ve even had people, including family members, directly suggest that maybe they shouldn’t be taking the medication.

In many cases, these are the same people who post supportive messages on Bell Let’s Talk day, the whole point of which is to end the stigma associated with mental illness. But suggesting that my kids stop taking their medication IS the stigma. You are suggesting that the medication is not necessary because they should be able to overcome their illness through sheer will. That’s just not how it works.

Gail and I are both insulin-dependent type 2 diabetics. Nobody has ever asked me if we take our insulin or other diabetes medications every day or on weekends, and nobody has ever suggested we try not taking it. Similarly, if you have migraines or chronic back pain, pain medication is a lifesaver and nobody who’s ever had either of these would suggest to someone else suffering with it that maybe they should skip their medication and try something else to cope with the pain. It seems that we all know that “Try distracting yourself so you don’t think about it!” is not going to work on a migraine, but some think that will work on depression.

I’ve seen images on Facebook talking about the number of children in the US diagnosed with ADHD and that half of them are on medication, as if that’s a source of shame. Think of the number of kids diagnosed with leukemia; 100% of them are on medication and nobody’s ashamed of that.

Of course I’m not saying that everyone with ADHD or depression should be on medication. I’m sure there are many people who have developed coping techniques for their illnesses and don’t need medication, but that’s just not possible for everyone. If you suggest to those people (or their parents) that maybe they don’t need it and maybe they should try not taking it, you are not helping. You are contributing to the belief that mental illnesses are not real illnesses and can be overcome by simply working harder. They can’t. So please stop.

Mike Pence, Matt Walsh, respect, and trust

A Christian conservative blogger named Matt Walsh posted an article to Facebook (and something to his blog as well) the other day in support of VP Mike Pence. I’ll let Mr. Walsh describe it himself:

I decided to check the headlines tonight and this is the “news story” I saw being reported by dozens of outlets. You see, Vice President Pence will not eat a meal alone with a woman other than his wife, and the media wants us to realize that this is a humongous scandal. Many of the mindless hyenas on Twitter have been cackling about it, because apparently it’s hilarious and bizarre for a married man to forgo dinner dates with other women.

Well, I confess that my wife and I must join the puritan club with Mr. and Mrs. Pence, because neither of us would go out for a meal alone with a member of the opposite sex, either (other than family, of course). In fact, I would go so far as to say that a married man shouldn’t be hanging out with another woman one-on-one in almost any situation, whether there’s a meal involved or not. I’m radical like that, I guess.

Mr. Pence and his wife (as well as Mr. Walsh and his wife) have agreed that neither will eat with someone of the opposite sex without the other one there. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s their marriage and far be it from me to tell someone else how they should conduct their marriage (though Mr. Pence has no trouble doing that). But the implication that the Pences and Walshes are invariably right and anyone who disagrees is wrong is so condescending and holier-than-thou it’s scary.

From his blog article on the same subject:

Listen to the vets who’ve been in it for 20 or 30 years or longer. You’ll find that the vast majority of them would agree with Pence, or, at the very least, understand his approach and respect it.

How does he know the “vast majority” of long-married couples would agree? Sounds to me like the old echo chamber is rearing its ugly head again – he writes a conservative Christian blog, and the majority of his readers are probably conservative Christians too and thus agree with him. But he seems to think that their views match those of the general public. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t, but unless you’ve got some actual evidence, you can’t just go asserting things like that.

…if you have no boundaries other than “don’t cheat,” you’ve set yourself up for failure. Inevitably, if cheating is your only boundary, even it will eventually be crossed. …We must take active and purposeful steps to protect ourselves from stumbling into sin and betrayal. If we take no such steps, we are much closer to doing the thing “we would never do” than we’d care to admit or imagine.

Speak for yourself, pal.

Frankly, when I have some time to myself, I much prefer to either spend it alone, reading or fishing or something, or with male friends who I share a fraternal bond with. A man can’t have that kind of bond with a woman. It’s an absurd proposition.

Why the hell not?

Gail and I celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary last October, so that makes me a vet in Walsh’s view.  By “understand his approach and respect it”, I suppose that’s arguably correct in that I don’t think Pence is an idiot for having this pact with his wife. What I really disagree with is the implication that because he (Walsh) thinks this way, that’s the correct way of thinking. On his blog Walsh has the various taglines “Absolute truths”, “Christian columnist and political incendiary Matt Walsh is an extremist — if truth is extreme”, and “Matt Walsh is a blogger, writer, and professional sayer of truths.” How cocky do you have to be to post your opinions and call them objective truth? If that statement was there once, then OK, I might believe he meant it jokingly. But three times?

We’ve reached full Idiocracy, folks. Prudence and wisdom are openly mocked. And mocked, I should mention, mostly by people who’ve never been married or never managed to stay married. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in a successful and stable marriage who thinks it’s silly for spouses to have policies like this.

<Raises hand> Again, if we’re splitting hairs, I suppose he’s technically correct. Do I think it’s silly to have such a policy in your marriage? No, but is it necessary? Also no. At least not for everyone.

I’ve been married to my wonderful wife for over twenty years and we are very happy, thank you very much. I have many female friends and I have had one-on-one meals with a few of them. Gail’s known about such meals when they’ve happened and never batted an eye because she trusts me. Similarly she’s done the same with male friends, and it never bothered me either because I trust her.

In fact, the policy is so obvious that it shouldn’t even need to be stated out loud. Only ridiculous and immature people who have no concept of how husbands and wives should operate could possibly laugh at a married couple for actually respecting each other, as the Pences clearly do.

I don’t see how “you can’t go for dinner alone with Bob because you might end up sleeping with him” is showing her respect. Similarly, “I promise not to go out for dinner alone with any woman because I might end up sleeping with her” isn’t showing respect. How about “I promise not to sleep with anyone else”? You said that as part of your marriage vows – isn’t that enough? If you have to make other rules to make sure you don’t break that one, what’s stopping you from breaking the “I won’t eat lunch with another woman” rule?

Personally, I have no desire to go out with women other than my wife. I have no desire to maintain friendships with women.

Good for you. But don’t presume to speak for all men, and don’t pretend that your opinion is somehow more valuable than anyone else’s. I do have friendships with women that I want to maintain. These friendships are threats to neither my marriage nor theirs.

Have there been people who did stray from their marriage vows in such a situation? I’m sure there have been many. Maybe for those people, avoiding such a situation would have been a good idea. But don’t assume that everyone is at similar risk. Does Mr. Walsh prevent Mrs. Walsh from going to Wal-Mart by herself just in case the feeling of shoplifting comes over her, even if she’s never stolen anything in her life? To paraphrase Mr. Walsh’s own blog, “Do you believe your spouse is literally impervious to the sin of theft? If you do, please tell us how you managed to climb to Heaven and marry an archangel.”

Matt Walsh whines about his values being openly mocked while openly mocking the values of those who disagree with him. I’m not mocking anyone except Walsh. If you want to make that agreement with your spouse and you both honour it, good for you. But don’t imply that those of us who have not made that agreement must (a) be philanderers, (b) have unhappy marriages, or worse (c) not know as much about marriage as Matt Walsh, the Speaker of Truth™.

This whole article doesn’t even touch the other big issue here. It’s fine for Walsh and his wife to make this kind of pact, but Mike Pence is the Vice President of one of the most powerful countries in the world. If he refuses to be alone with a woman who isn’t his wife, what are the odds he’s going to hire women for important roles in his administration? We already know that both Pence and Trump think of women as second-class citizens, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they won’t be hiring many. But isn’t it possible that the Chancellor of Germany needs to have a private meeting with Pence at some point? Is he really going to cancel the meeting if his wife can’t be there? Does the Vice President of the Unites States really need a fucking chaperone?

The echo chamber

When I first joined Facebook over ten years ago, I though it would be a fun little diversion. Over time, it turned into a invaluable communications tool, particularly with friends and family far away. I have a number of friends who have moved to Alberta, BC, and the US and I’m sure that without Facebook, I would have lost touch with many of them. I also grew up thousands of miles away from my cousins in Scotland and England (and later, Australia) and so I don’t know them very well, but I’m able to touch base with them and get to know them, to some extent, thanks to Facebook. I’m sure this is the case for hundreds of millions of other people worldwide.

One great thing about Facebook is that it allows you have direct conversations with your friends and also see what they’re talking about with other people. But that’s also a bad thing about Facebook. You see what your friends are saying and what their friends are saying, but nobody else. This sounds like what you would want. I want to hear and discuss my friends’ opinions on things. And why would I want to hear some random guy’s opinions on things if I don’t know him?

EchoChamberBut by definition, your friends’ world views are generally similar to yours (or they wouldn’t be your friends), and their friends’ views are generally similar to theirs. Of course everyone’s different and friends can have different views on things but more often than not, you find yourself agreeing with your friends on many issues. This is not limited to Facebook – it also applies to Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks. Oh, and real life too.

The problem here is that social networks in general become what’s known as an echo chamber. When you post an opinion and see nothing but agreement, you start to think that this is a popular opinion, or even a consensus. But you’re only seeing your friends’ opinions and since most of your friends think the way you do, you are getting a skewed view of the population.

Take the most recent US election as an example. For months before the election, I saw many postings from friends talking about what a terrible choice Donald Trump would be for President, and I posted many such opinions myself. I saw some postings arguing the other way, but those were mostly reposts from my friends, along with a comment on how misguided the original posters were. I saw almost no pro-Trump postings directly from anyone I knew. In fact, I can only think of one person on my Facebook friends list who posted anything positive about Donald Trump. As a result, I started to believe that the vast majority of people were against Trump, and thus Hillary Clinton would win the election in a landslide.

Imagine my surprise.

Well, you probably don’t have to imagine, since the election results seemed to take everyone by surprise, whether they supported Clinton, Trump, or neither one. Since then, it’s been one surprise after another, though it really shouldn’t be since Trump is doing exactly what he told everyone he would do if elected. Many people, myself include, just couldn’t believe he’d actually get the chance, thanks to the echo chamber.

Did this actually affect the election’s outcome? Perhaps the Trump supporters were so determined to have a non-politician in the White House that they turned out in droves to vote. Meanwhile the Hillary supporters were so deeply embedded in their echo chambers that they didn’t think they had to. It sounds plausible but I’m not sure about it – after all, Trump supporters would have been living in an echo chamber of their own.

I don’t pretend to have a good solution for this problem. On Twitter, I do follow Donald Trump himself (both his personal account and @POTUS) just to see what he’s talking about. Before the election it was a source of humour because he couldn’t possibly win. Since the election, his tweets have been more of a source of anger and fear and usually make me shake my head, but I haven’t unfollowed. I did recently notice that a fairly prominent lacrosse coach was a Trump supporter, and I unfollowed him. He didn’t tweet much anyway so it wasn’t a huge deal. But by doing this I was simply strengthening my echo chamber, something I didn’t think of at the time. Maybe I need to revisit that strategy.

The greatest President since Obama

President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly said during the campaign that he’d immediately repeal “Obamacare” if elected. After the election, Trump met with President Obama and subsequently backed down on this, saying that there are parts of it that he likes. Maybe President Obama explained some of the finer details of Obamacare to Mr. Trump, who had never really understood them before, and having more information changed his mind. It’s good to know Mr. Trump has an open mind, and is willing to change it given evidence. I wonder what else might he change his mind on, given a conversation with the right people?

Secretary: Mr. President, the President of Mexico is here and would like to speak with you.
Trump: OK, show him in.

(two hours later)

Trump: My fellow Americans, I have decided to cancel the Mexican Wall project.

Secretary: Mr. President, there are forty-seven climate scientists here to meet with you. They have letters from hundreds of others.
Trump: Sure, I have a few minutes before my tee time.

(two hours later)

Trump: Hey Mike, find that EPA guy I hired and fire him. No wait, firing people is my specialty. Get him in here.

Secretary: Mr. President, the ghost of Martin Luther King, Jr. is here and wants a word.
Trump: What the heck does he want? OK.

(two hours later)

Trump: Hey Mike, we need to cancel that whole “Camp Islam” thing we talked about.

Secretary: Mr. President, Dr. King is back again, he forgot to tell you something.
Trump: Wow, busy day. Sure, send him in.

(ten minutes later)

Trump: Mike, you’re fired.

A week later, Trump invites Hillary Clinton to replace Mike Pence as his vice-president and hires Neil deGrasse Tyson as his chief science advisor. Four years later, the US is a beacon of prosperity, multiculturalism, peace, and harmony. Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in fifty years. The third season of Cosmos made the NFL move Sunday night football because their ratings just couldn’t compete. America is leading the way with renewable energy solutions and the climate isn’t warming quite as fast as before. NASA’s budget has been doubled and there are projects underway to send Americans back to the Moon and to Mars. President Trump is re-elected in one of the biggest landslides in history.

Four years after that, he leaves office with a 96% approval rating. Trump closes his hotel in New York City and turns it into the biggest Presidential Library in the country.


And then I woke up.