Category Archives: Memories

The Contac C jerk

There was a commercial that really bugged me when I was a kid in the early 80’s. It’s on YouTube, but here’s what happens. Note that I did this entire transcript from memory before finding the video online. I got maybe two lines wrong. That’s how much TV I watched as a kid.

Scene: a bus stop. A man is sitting on the bench, reading a newspaper. A second man (this guy, one of the cops from Terminator 2) sits down next to him. The second man has a red nose and a handful of tissues. He sneezes into the tissues.

Man 2: Oh, this cold.
Man 1: Yeah, I know what you mean.
Man 2: No you don’t, you don’t have a cold. [Which is a dumb thing to say anyway. It’s very unlikely that the other guy has never had a cold. Even if he doesn’t right now, he knows how it feels.]
Man 1: Oh, yes I do.
Man 2: You’re not sneezing or sniffling.
Man 1: I was yesterday, but I took Contac C.

Bus arrives. Cut to close-ups of the Contac C box. the pills, etc. Narrator talks about how great Contac C is at reducing your cold symptoms.

Cut to the same bench. Man2 from the previous scene is sitting on the bench, reading a newspaper and looking refreshed. A different man is next to him, and he is sneezing into tissues.

Man 3: Oh, this cold.
Man 2: Yeah, I know what you mean.
Man 3: No you don’t.
Man 2: Oh, yes I do.

Man 2 smiles, then goes back to reading his newspaper.

I remember asking: why didn’t the second guy tell the third guy about Contac C? Some stranger told him just the previous day, and now he’s feeling better. Then he sees someone else suffering the same way but does he pay it forward? No, he thinks “screw you, buddy, I’m not giving you the secret. I’ll just sit here and smirk.” Asshole.


Spending New Years with Harry, Captain Jack Sparrow, and the Hulk

For the sixth straight year, Gail, the boys, and I were homebodies on New Years Eve. And it was awesome.

Friends of ours have New Years parties every year and we’re always invited. We used to go and always had fun, but they all live over an hour from us. We ended up driving home after midnight and so the boys didn’t get to bed until 1:30-2:00am. They’re 11 and 14 now so that isn’t really a big deal anymore, but when they were 6 and 9 it threw their sleep patterns off for days.

Five years ago (this would have been 2008-2009), we decided to skip the party and have a Harry Potter movie marathon (all 5 of them at the time) instead – we’d start in the afternoon of New Years Eve, watch HP movies until bedtime, then continue the next morning. Part of the fun of this event for the boys was staying up until midnight, although Ryan was unsuccessful in that endeavour. This picture was taken December 31, 2009 at 11:59 pm:

Happy New Year!

On a bit of a whim, Gail decided to make Harry Potter-themed treats for the occasion. She made some kind of fruit punch and called it “pumpkin juice”, and cut up fruits into unusual shapes and called it a “herbology experiment”. She also made “cauldron cakes”, which were two-bite brownies covered in melted chocolate, a few mini-marshmallows, and a licorice handle:

Cauldron cakes

and the boys helped make magic wands – Twizzlers dipped in white chocolate and covered in star-shaped sprinkles:


The boys loved this, and the four of us had a lot of fun with it.

The next year, the boys asked weeks before New Years if we were going to do it again. We decided to make it a tradition, but pick a different movie series each time. The second time it was Star Trek, though we didn’t watch all of the movies. I think we started with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, then Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (with the whales), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, then Star Trek: Generations and finally the reboot of Star Trek (with Chris Pine). I would have added Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in there too, but Nicky was only 7 and Ryan 10, and I knew the scene with the bug-thing going into (and then coming out of) Chekov’s ear would freak them out. Our food selection that year included gagh (made from lo mein noodles), targ (chicken drumsticks), and Romulan ale (blue Gatorade). Inexplicably, we seem to have no pictures from this year.

For year 3 (Dec 31, 2010-Jan 1, 2011) we chose the Back to the Future series, and dined on burgers, fries, shakes, and sundaes (like in a 50’s diner), futuristic pancakes and fruit (the “food from the future” thing was tough, so Gail made pancakes in weird shapes and we bought some unusual fruits like starfruit and dragon fruit), and an old west lunch of wieners and beans.

Shakes and sundaes

The next year it was Pirates of the Carribbean, and Gail expanded things a little. Each of us had a name tag; we were Cap’n Dan Bloodbucket, “Sharkbait” Hubert Bones, Cap’n Isaac Slasher, and Eye-Gougin’ Alena Jones. We set up a scavenger hunt for the boys with pirate-themed clues, and their treasure at the end was a bag of “gold” (chocolate coins). We can’t remember the details of the food we prepared that year, but it definitely included some tropical fruits (pineapple and coconut), and apples for Captain Barbossa. I think we drank iced tea and called it rum. And once again, no pictures. I have no idea how that happened.

Last year (starting 2013) we picked the Indiana Jones series, though Gail thankfully skipped the eyeball soup and chilled monkey brains. Some of our food choices this year were Sallah’s salad (made with couscous), “snake on a stick” (chicken skewers), spicy cobra eyes (some kind of spicy chocolate covered cranberries), monkey toes (marshmallow candies), and to drink, the blood of Kali (pink lemonade). We all got name tags this year as well – I was Henry Jones Sr., Ryan was Mutt Williams, Nicky was Short Round, and Gail was Marion Ravenwood.

Snake on a stick Monkey toes Spicy cobra eyes

To welcome 2014, we picked a Superhero theme. The Avengers is one of our favourite movies, so we could easily have just chosen The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, and The Avengers, but Gail decided to mix things up a little. We started with The Incredibles. For dinner on New Year’s Eve we had super “hero” sandwiches, Elastigirl’s twisty salad (pasta salad made with rotini), Violet’s disappearing salad (Gail’s broccoli salad which we all love, hence “disappearing”), Cracker Jack-Jack (heh), and Underminer’s dirt cups (pudding with crushed Oreo “dirt” and gummy worms) for dessert.

Twisty salad and super heros

Our next screening was Man of Steel, which none of us had seen. Coincidentally, the movie ended around 11:50pm, so we watched Dick Clark some Times Square show (starring a bunch of people I didn’t know – what a drag it is getting old) until the ball dropped.

Have you ever tried shwarma? There's a shwarma joint about two blocks from here. I don't know what it is, but I wanna try it.The next morning, we continued our super-hero extravaganza with Spider Man (the one with Tobey Maguire), then had lunch with the Avengers. Gail had a lot of fun with this one. There was Iron Man’s chicken shwarma, Hulk’s spinach dip, Thor’s Hammer apps (cubes of cheese, pepperoni, and kielbasa with pretzel sticks as the handles), Black Widow’s spider bites (Oreos with four pieces of black licorice sticking out each side), Hawkeye wings, and Captain America’s power drink (cranberry juice, Sprite, and blue Gatorade layered in a glass).

I burned Hawkeye's wings a little.

Our final movie of the event was Green Lantern, and we went all green on this one. Green plates, cups, napkins, and cutlery, as well as green apples, grapes, and melon, and gummy frogs and sour green gummy… things.

If you know any of the four of us personally, you may wonder why we haven’t done the most obvious movie series for us to tackle: Star Wars. The answer is the food. What food do you see people eating in the Star Wars movies? There’s not much in the original trilogy (Aunt Beru’s blue milk is one possibility). Anakin, Qui-Gon, Jar Jar, and Shmi sit down to dinner in The Phantom Menace, but I don’t remember what they ate. We could always make stuff up though – a quick Google search shows things like Vader’s taters or Vader’s veggies, Yoda Soda and Qui-Gon Jinn-ger ale, Han Solo’s Rolos, light sabers (pretzel sticks with blue or red coloured icing), and Wookie’s cookies. Maybe we could revisit the chicken drumsticks from the Star Trek year and have “roasted Ewok” or something.

So what’s on the agenda for next year? We haven’t decided yet. Maybe it will be Star Wars, or maybe we’ll try Lord of the Rings. Maybe Twilight, though other than drinking “blood”, I’m not sure what we’d eat. Got any suggestions? Leave me a comment and let me know!

My first business trip: Elizabethtown, PA

I have loved programming computers since I wrote my first program on my Commodore VIC-20 back in grade 9 (that would be 1982 – damn I’m old). I also got pretty good at it, which explains why I’m still doing it over 30 years later. Being a programmer has had many rewards for me over the years, and one of the perks (before Sybase/SAP, anyway) was travel. I worked for Microsoft in Redmond, Washington for four months on my last university co-op work term, and flew out there again a few months later for grad interviews. While working for Corel, I went to New York City for a day. I was only at Comnetix for three years, but while I was there I went to Boston countless times (roughly once a month for those three years, sometimes for weeks at a time), Washington DC, New York City (again, for a day), Ottawa, San Francisco twice, Naples Florida, and I would have gone to Spain for a project if I hadn’t already had a vacation booked at the time. In my sixteen years at Sybase, I’ve only been on three business trips, all to Baltimore, but now that I have a family, I’m fine with that.

But my very first programming-related trip was to Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. Now I know the programmers among you are wondering “Damn, Graeme, how did you score that?” This is a place that I would wager very few of you have ventured. And if you actually used the term score, you have definitely never been.*

When I was in grade 12 (this would be the spring of 1986), a few of us were asked by our computer science teacher Miss Gray if we wanted to participate in a programming contest run by the American Computer Science League. We would be given a few questions, and we’d have a limited amount of time to write programs to answer the questions. This sounded like fun, so we entered and did really well – well enough to garner a trip to the finals. And not just the Canadian finals, this was for high school students across Canada and the US. (Actually, another guy that went, Faisal, reminded me that we didn’t actually make the finals, but some other team wasn’t able to make the trip so we took their place.) The finals were held in, you guessed it, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. Five of us were chosen to go: me, Faisal, Glen M., Glen F., and Paul. Miss Gray and our school principal Mr. Peleschak came too.

Mr. Peleschak was an interesting guy. He was the principal of the school for our entire five years there. He was an older gentleman, very friendly, almost grandfatherly. He had a full grey beard and always wore a smile. Back in the politically incorrect past, every school day began with a recording of O Canada followed by the Lord’s Prayer. (I remember being a defiant atheist and not bowing my head during the prayer. I was such a rebel.) There were numerous different recordings of the Lord’s Prayer, all done by Mr. Peleschak himself, and all different in some way. For example, in some he said “forgive us our trespasses”, others had “forgive us our sins”, and still others had “forgive us our debts”. His various forms of prayer earned him the nickname “The Pope”. Note that this was not a Catholic school.

We all drove down in Mr. Peleschak’s van, and I think I remember more about the trip down and back than the contest itself. iPods were still 15 years away, so a few of us brought tapes and Walkmans (Walkmen?) to listen to music. Mr. Peleschak said he would put our tapes in the van’s tape player so we could all listen, but we’d have to alternate – one of our tapes, then one of his. This was OK with us, except that all of his were John Denver. I wasn’t much of a John Denver fan at the time and after that trip, I’m still not. But I don’t think Mr. Peleschak was much of a Triumph or Van Halen fan, so I guess we were all even. Mr. Peleschak also smoked a pipe, so now and again the van was filled with pipe smoke (though I believe he opened a window when he lit it). Certainly by the end of the drive I was sick of the smell, but I did have to admit it was better than cigar or cigarette smoke.

The contest was being held at Elizabethtown College, and all the competitors stayed in residences there. Faisal and I were in one room (foreshadowing our time at the University of Waterloo, when we were roommates or housemates for almost four years), the two Glens were in another, and Paul was the lucky one who got to bunk with Mr. Peleschak. Miss Gray got her own room. I have no memory of what we did for food, or even how many nights we were there. Everyone got a welcome package, though the only thing I remember it including was a baby blue frisbee with “American Computer Science League” on it. Outside the residence where we were staying was a large open area. I don’t remember if it was a football field or just a big green space but much of the time we were there, there were blue frisbees flying all over the place. Twenty-seven years later, I still have mine (pictured above). The words have faded a little, but it’s still functional. It takes a lot to break a frisbee, when you think about it.

The contest itself was a complete disaster for our team. Each team could request the types of computers they needed, and we asked for Commodore PETs, which were the computers we were using at school. When we arrived, we found that they had provided us with the right machines though an older model. But the problem was that they had a different language installed. The machines shipped with a version of the BASIC language, but our school computers were using Waterloo Structured BASIC**, which was BASIC with extra stuff added. We were forced to adapt to using regular BASIC, and while not a huge disadvantage, it was certainly frustrating and distracting. I don’t remember where we finished exactly, but I have a feeling we might have had full solutions for one or maybe two of the five questions, and partial solutions for the rest. And I think “partial solution” is pretty generous. In short, we got smoked.

The way home should have been memorable, since we stopped at Hersheypark in nearby Hershey for a day of fun. But the only thing I remember about that part of the trip were the street lights in town (shaped like Hershey Kisses) and the fact that many of the street names were chocolate-related. I have no memories of the park itself, though apparently we played mini-golf, since Miss Gray wrote something in my grade 12 yearbook about that.

About a year and a half after this contest, I began my studies at the University of Waterloo, though I didn’t choose computer science as a major until second year. I guess my next computer-related trip was to Seattle in 1991 to work at Microsoft. That trip was pretty memorable as well, but you always remember your first.

* – That was just a joke, really. I have no negative memories of Elizabethtown itself, though we made fun of the place while we were there because it was so small. We lived in a town of about 50,000 just outside of Toronto, a city of 4 million. Elizabethtown had a few thousand people and wasn’t close to anything big. At one point we saw three people walking together and Faisal said “hey look, an Elizabethtown gang!”

** – This ended up being an interesting coincidence years later. Waterloo Structured Basic was developed by a company called Waterloo Computing Systems, which later renamed itself WATCOM. In 1994, WATCOM was acquired by Powersoft, and a year later Powersoft was acquired by Sybase. I started working for Sybase, in the same office where WATCOM was located and with many of the same people, in 1997. We’ve moved buildings but I’m still there, and some of the people who were on the languages team in the ’80s are also still there though many have moved on and some have retired.

The night Blue Rodeo saved my life

I have lived in or near the largest city in Canada, Toronto, pretty much all my life. But in my 42 years, I have only been to Canada’s second-largest city, Montreal, twice. Once was in 1980 when my family travelled east to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and I remember bits of that trip (I remember it was 1980 because we saw The Empire Strikes Back in Halifax) but nothing about Montreal. The other time was shortly after I moved to Ottawa after graduating from the University of Waterloo in 1992. That one was more memorable.

I started listening to Metallica in about second-year university and by the time I graduated in 1992, I was a big fan. Faith No More’s album The Real Thing was one of my favourites during my university years, and while not a huge Guns ‘n Roses fan, I liked most of their music. So when I heard during the summer of 1992 that all three bands would soon be coming to Montreal, I was very excited. The radio ads said “seven hours of heavy metal!” I had moved to Ottawa in June to work at Corel, and Ottawa is only about an hour and a half away from Montreal. I called my girlfriend Gail (now my wife of fifteen years) and asked if she wanted to go. She’s not the metal fan that I am, but she liked Enter Sandman and a few GnR songs, so she agreed. Plus we decided to get a hotel room and stay over, so it was a mini-vacation.

We drove to Montreal the morning of the concert, which was on a Saturday. A friend of Gail’s lived in Montreal so we visited with her in the afternoon, and then walked down from our hotel to Olympic Stadium for the concert. I remember seeing an Expos souvenir shop near the door where we came in. The concert started right on time, with Faith No More opening. We were at the far end of the stadium, on the left side. I think we were on the lower level. The first thing I noticed when the show started was that the sound was terrible. Forget deciphering the lyrics, I couldn’t even figure out what half the songs were. Faith No More played for about 45 minutes, then they were done and we waited for Metallica. The tour was a “co-headlining” tour, and I don’t know if the order of the bands changed from night to night, but on this night Metallica was second and GnR third.

I don’t remember how long a delay there was before Metallica came on but I don’t think it was outrageous, maybe 30-45 minutes. I hoped that someone had fixed the sound problems, but alas, it was not to be. The first song they played was my favourite Metallica song ever, Creeping Death, and it was half over before I even realized what song it was. Sound problems aside, they put on a great show for about 45 minutes before it all went to hell. They started into Fade To Black, and about a minute into the song, after some pyrotechnics at the front of the stage went off, the music just… stopped. Dead air. Nothing. The smoke from the pyro cleared and we could see that the stage was empty. What the hell happened? Where’s the band? There was a lot of talking in the crowd, but the house lights didn’t come on, and nobody knew what was going on. It was several minutes before bassist Jason Newsted came out onto the stage and grabbed a microphone. He said that James (lead singer Hetfield) had been hurt by some pyrotechnics and he couldn’t continue, so they’d have to cut their show short. He apologized on behalf of the band but said that they would come back to Montreal and they hoped we’d come out and see them then. (Apparently they did come back the next year, with tickets under $20 each as a sort of apology.) On came the house lights, and a disappointed crowd waited for Guns ‘n Roses.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

I’m guessing that the show was scheduled such that Faith No More and Metallica would each play for a pre-determined length of time, and enough time was set aside for two stage switches, so Guns ‘n Roses knew when their show was scheduled to start. GnR singer Axl Rose is not known for being flexible and… well, let’s just call a spade a spade. Axl Rose is known for being an asshole. I have no proof, but I have assumed since that day that Axl decided it was too bad Metallica’s show ended early, but GnR were scheduled to go on at whatever time, and that’s when they would go on. Those fifty-odd thousand people out there would just have to wait.

Two and a half hours after Metallica’s show abruptly ended, Guns ‘n Roses finally took the stage. After the high-energy Metallica show, we found that Guns ‘n Roses just didn’t have any energy. I have no memory of what songs they played, but Gail and I quickly got bored. Our feeling was “They made us wait 2½ hours and this is what they’re giving us?” After only about twenty minutes, I was bored enough to suggest that we take off. I was there to see Metallica anyway, Gail didn’t much care one way or the other, and we had discovered earlier that night that Blue Rodeo was playing a free concert across the street from our hotel. We were both big Blue Rodeo fans as well, so we left and took a cab from the Big O back to the hotel. We walked across the street and enjoyed the second half of the Blue Rodeo show.

While driving back to Ottawa the next morning, we listened to a Montreal radio station for a while. The DJs were taking phone calls from listeners who were all answering the question “If you could talk to Axl Rose right now, what would you say?” All of the callers had very negative things to say and we assumed that the majority of fans were as disappointed with the GnR show as we were, though maybe not enough to leave early as we did. After a while we lost the radio signal and turned it off, still blissfully unaware of what had actually happened. I didn’t find out until the next day, when I returned to work and my co-workers asked about the riot.

My response was “The what?”

As it turned out, Guns ‘n Roses played for a total of about 55 minutes before simply leaving the stage. Axl Rose later claimed that his throat hurt, and indeed a few shows had been cancelled over the previous couple of weeks for that reason. But on this night, to my knowledge, there was no announcement of any kind. The band just left the stage and the lights came on. The remaining crowd were less than impressed with this. The promised “seven hours of heavy metal” turned into maybe 2½ hours of music and over 3 hours of waiting. This displeasure resulted in people going down to the floor and throwing chairs, and then destroying whatever they could on the way out of the stadium. I saw pictures on the news of the very same Expos shop we had seen on the way in, which had been smashed and looted. When the crowd got outside the bad behaviour turned into a full-fledged riot, with the rioters looting stores and using Guns ‘n Roses T-shirts to set several fires including at least one car. The Montreal police had to use tear gas and shut down several subway stations. It even made the New York Times. This was the reason for the questions about Axl Rose on the radio the next morning, and it was big news in Ottawa as well, so everyone knew about it – except us.

Aside: According to an interview eighteen years later with GnR drummer Matt Sorum, the reason for the delay was that Guns ‘n Roses wasn’t even in the building. Actually they had not even arrived in Montreal yet. They were on their way from Toronto and were well over an hour away before they heard about the problems. (The text of the interview says that it had been 4½ hours, not 2½, but I don’t remember it being that long.) I’m not sure I buy this argument though. Opening act 1 was done and opening act 2 was on stage, and not only was the band not at the stadium, they weren’t even in the city? Good planning, people. Apparently the unexpected scheduling change caused other audio problems that contributed to the GnR show being cut short, but I’m not sure I buy this either. Sure the sound for the previous two bands sucked, but I have since heard from a number of people that concerts at the Big O always had bad sound. Plus, instead of the normal 45-60 minutes to switch stages, they had somewhere between 2½ and 4½ hours and still couldn’t it working properly?

The Montreal riot wasn’t the insanity that was downtown Vancouver after the Stanley Cup final, but I’m still very glad that Gail and I weren’t part of it. And we have two bands to thank: Blue Rodeo for being free, and Guns ‘n Roses for being boring.

Out of my league

The brand-new SkyDome opened in Toronto in the summer of 1989. I was a second-year computer science student at the University of Waterloo at the time, and when the Math Society bought group tickets to a Blue Jays game, a bunch of my friends and I joined in.

On the day of the game, a couple of school busses full of students made the 1 1/2 hour drive to SkyDome. We were all responsible university students so, of course, we were all drinking. Many of us bought 2L bottles of Coke, drank a bit, and filled it back up with rye or rum. News flash: when you’ve consumed 2 litres of rye-and-coke in less than two hours, trapped on a school bus in downtown Toronto traffic is not the place you want to be. This seemed particularly true for one student, a guy named Cam. Cam was a computer engineer and was in the same class as my roommate, so I knew who he was though I didn’t know him well. He was sitting a few seats ahead of me and I believe his bouncing started somewhere down the 427. We were at least 20 minutes away from the stadium – in good traffic. We weren’t in good traffic, so it was going to be much longer before relief would be available. Within a few minutes, everyone on the bus knew that Cam was in some trouble, and of course everyone thought that this was pretty darned funny. Well, almost everyone – Cam certainly wasn’t laughing much, and neither was his girlfriend, who was sitting a couple of seats behind me. The fact that Cam was so public about his discomfort was absolutely mortifying to this girl, who was slouching down in her seat, trying to hide. I was single at the time, and thought she was extremely cute and seemed really nice but I quickly came back to reality – not only was she already seeing someone, but I remember thinking “She is so out of my league”.

I guess Cam’s rye-and-Coke bottle wasn’t even empty at this point, because I remember him asking if anyone else had an empty bottle and someone tossed him theirs. (His girlfriend slouched even lower at this point.) He immediately had the seat to himself. He sat there for at least ten minutes. Call it performance anxiety, but despite his discomfort, he found himself unable to, um, fill the bottle. Another 10-15 minutes later, we were stuck in stop-and-go traffic on Lakeshore Boulevard right in front of Ontario Place, when Cam could stand it no longer. He asked the bus driver to open the door and ran over to some bushes at the side of the road. He didn’t even bother finding a discreet place – everyone on Lakeshore could see him. A bunch of drunk mathies and engineers cheered from the bus as Cam found relief, and he waved – though thankfully without turning around first. He made his way back onto the bus to great applause. I’m pretty sure his girlfriend was not clapping. I remember nothing else about that trip – not a single thing about the game itself.

As for his girlfriend, she turned out to be a math major like me and friend of a friend and I did eventually get to know her. I was right – she was extremely cute, and was even nicer in person than I imagined on that bus ride.

We’ve been married now for over fifteen years.

Ian McAdam

Last summer, our family travelled to England and Scotland and while in Scotland, we met up with a number of aunt, uncles, and cousins of mine. We spent a great evening with my cousin Ian and his wife Lesley at the racetrack in Hamilton – I wrote about it here (July 11). Last week, Ian passed away suddenly. He was only 45.

Ian was quite a character – charming and very outgoing with lots of personality, but not to the point of being obnoxious. Well, not usually, anyway. We didn’t really know each other very well since we lived on different continents our whole lives, but whenever I saw him, he always treated me like we were best friends. I was unaccustomed to this. I grew up in Canada, while all my aunts, uncles, and cousins live in Scotland and England. Whenever I did travel to Scotland or they travelled here, there was always some awkwardness because we were family but didn’t really know each other. Ian didn’t care about that – we were cousins, and so when we were together, we were going to have a good time. The night we went to the racetrack, I think Ian felt like the host – this was his country and his town (he saw a few friends of his while we were there), and so he was going to make absolutely sure we had a great time. And he succeeded.

We were visiting my Aunt Sandra in the morning when Ian called looking for us. He suggested we go to the racetrack while Aunt Sandra babysat his girls and our boys. When we arrived at the racetrack, there were hundreds of other people there as well, and the lines for food were very long. We were hungry, but we didn’t want to wait in the long lines, so we decided we’d get dinner later. We went and got our betting forms and some drinks, since the drink lines were much shorter. Ian and I got beer, Lesley got wine, and Gail just had water. Ian asked if she wanted wine or beer or something else instead but Gail said no because alcohol can affect the medication she takes for her diabetes. Gail has Type 2 diabetes and it’s completely controlled by the medication – she doesn’t need insulin shots, and she’s pretty much free to have whatever food (sugary or not) that she wants. Once Ian heard that Gail was diabetic, he got an idea. He asked what Gail wanted to eat and Gail said that the BBQ pork sandwich sounded pretty good. Ian said “I’ll be right back” and dashed off towards the food stand. He returned just a few minutes later with a couple of sandwiches and a couple of orders of fries chips. We asked how he got them so quickly with such a long lineup, and he just said “don’t ask”. We suspected that he had run up to the front of the line and shouted “I have a diabetic woman who needs food right now!”, which was technically true, if a bit misleading – it’s not like she was in danger of passing out if she didn’t eat right away. Gail and I felt a little guilty eating when others were still waiting in line, but we were pretty hungry and the food was good so the guilt didn’t last long.

My mother reminded me of a similar event that happened when Ian came to Canada as a teenager for a visit. We went on a day trip to Niagara Falls. While walking around Clifton Hill, Ian went into a candy shop, mainly because of the pretty girl behind the counter. He talked to her for a little while and managed to talk her into giving him free fudge, but not just a bite or two – he came out of the shop with fudge for all of us.

Ian was a big guy with a big personality and an even bigger heart. From our conversations that night, I know that Ian was very proud of his 20-year-old son Martin and adored his two little girls, Alexis (7) and Zarah (3). As I said we didn’t know each other well, and he had only met Gail twice, but there was no question in my mind that Ian would have moved heaven and Earth to help us if we needed it, because we were family and that’s all that mattered. I know he holds a special place in my sister’s heart as well. He will be very much missed by his Canadian cousins.

A Kind of Magic

My sister Trudy is a little over two years my junior. As kids, we got along pretty well. We had our share of physical fights – I remember giving her a bloody nose once while waiting in the car for our parents to come out of a store – but they were usually pretty minor. There was a while during our teen years where we didn’t get along all that well, usually because I stuck to the rules and didn’t get in trouble while Trudy rebelled and did, but she also had a lot more fun on Saturday nights than I generally did. But by the time we hit our twenties, we were buds again and we remain friends now.

When we were kids, we liked to perform “shows” for my parents, as many kids do. Mostly they’d be puppet shows, where we’d move my dresser out a couple of feet from the wall and stand behind it – it was too hard to kneel down and perform with the puppets over our heads, so we just stood and said “pretend you don’t see us”. Occasionally there were “gymnastics” shows, where we’d do tumbling and tricks, which usually involved running across my room and diving onto the bed. But at least once there was a magic show, where Trudy and I performed some amazing feats of magic to the delight of my parents. Well, “delight” may be a bit strong, but they did laugh.

I’m sure most of the tricks we did were card tricks that were set up beforehand – rather than “pick a card, any card”, it was “pick the top card, look at it, and put it back here“. I don’t remember any of the tricks in any detail, except a sleight-of-hand trick that ended up being the last trick of the show – it wasn’t the finale, but it was the end of the show nonetheless. I had been teaching Trudy for weeks (well, at least a day or two) (or maybe half an hour) how to take a small item, roll it around in her hand, tell the audience she is about to make it vanish, and casually slide it up her sleeve. She could then show them her empty hands and bask in the crowd’s wonder and admiration. She wanted this to be her trick, not one that we performed together, so she really worked at it, concentrating on putting the item – a plastic letter with a magnet in the back for sticking to an easel – up her sleeve as smoothly as possible.

The show was moving along nicely, and it was soon time for Trudy’s disappearing letter trick. I stood to the side while Trudy stood in front of the rapt crowd (mom and dad), and took out her magnetic letter. She carefully showed them the letter, and then put her hands together, magically rolling the letter between her hands. She then said in the standard mysterious voice used exclusively by magicians:

I will now make this letter go up my sleeve.

I don’t know which one of us shouted first – Trudy because she realized what she had done, or me because she’d messed up the trick I’d spent so long teaching her. Our parents, admirably keeping their laughter under control, tried to tell her that it was OK, she could just keep going, but Trudy was inconsolable. I remember being angry with her at first, but I have a vague feeling that I quickly came around and agreed with my parents that she should just keep going and forget about it. Of course she didn’t. The show pretty much ended there, as Trudy left the “stage” crying.

To this day, Trudy hates magic shows.

The Interview

I graduated from the University of Waterloo in 1992 with a BMath in computer science. During my last term at Waterloo, those who were graduating went through interviews for full-time jobs. I interviewed for several companies, but I was only really interested in two: Microsoft in Redmond, Washington and Corel in Ottawa. I did my sixth work term at Microsoft, and they flew me out there again for the grad interviews. Unfortunately, due to some administrative mix-up, they had set up interviews for me on the assumption that I was a co-op student looking for a four-month position, not a graduate looking for full-time work, so those interviews didn’t amount to anything. I have no memory of flying or driving to Ottawa for the Corel interview, but I remember it taking place there, so I must have made my way there somehow.

I went through three interviews that day. The first was with the HR person (whose name, I believe, was Sandra Gibson – I have no idea why I remember that), telling me about compensation and benefits and such. The second was with the man who would be my boss if I got the job, Roger Bryanton, in which he told me about what their group did and the positions available. He asked me some technical questions as well as some more general ones like what I’d be interested in working on. Then came the third one, which is the only one I really remember. The interviewer was a man named Pat Beirne, who was Corel’s chief engineer and the man who originally wrote much of their signature application, CorelDRAW. I didn’t know it at the time, but the man was basically a living legend among Corel people. Roger brought me into Pat’s office, introduced us and left. I knew this was going to be a technical interview, so I put on my virtual propeller hat and got ready for the questions. Pat stood up and walked over to the large whiteboard on the wall to my left. It’s been over seventeen years since that interview, but I still clearly remember what he said next:

I’m here to find out if you know what you say you know.

I didn’t lie on my resume. I didn’t say I was an expert in anything. I didn’t say I had extensive C experience when I really only had some C experience. I didn’t say I was proficient in something I’d never used. But when the chief freakin’ engineer of the company says something like that and you’re twenty-two years old, even if you didn’t lie, and regardless of your self-confidence level, you’re gonna get nervous. And I was.

“Let’s start with an algorithm,” he said. I don’t remember what it was for, but he asked me to write some C code that would solve some fairly simple problem. There was a loop and an array and some numbers, but that’s all I remember. I wrote it up on the whiteboard in about 15-20 lines of code. “Great,” he told me, and I finally breathed out. I’d done it – I’d proven that I knew what I said I knew! I’d gotten the job, right? Not quite yet – we weren’t done. Not even close.

“Now make it faster.”

“Ummmm… OK…. I guess there are a few things being done here that don’t always need to be done, so you could add an if statement around them, and that would be a little faster.”

“Good. Now instead of handling just ten values, make it handle any number of values.”

“Oh… ummm… rather than using a static array here, you could dynamically allocate it.”

“Excellent. Now make it use half as much memory.”

“Uhhhhhh… you could…. ummmm…..”

“Here’s a hint: none of the numbers you’re storing is bigger than 50,000.”

“Oh, OK, you could use a short int rather than int and that would use half as much space.”

“Very good. Now make it faster.”

We went on like that for hours. Well, it felt like hours. “Make it faster.” “Make the code smaller.” “Make it handle negative numbers.” “Make it faster again.” By the time I was done, I’m sure I had three machine instructions that would handle an infinite number of values in a nanosecond using zero memory.

Of course even then I knew that he wasn’t testing to see how small and fast I could make this particular algorithm. He was testing three things:

  1. How well I knew the C language, and programming concepts in general
  2. What kind of problem solving skills I had
  3. How I perform under pressure

These are in no particular order; in fact #1 was by far the least important of the three. If I had #1 but was short on #2 or #3, well thanks for coming in and we’ll be in touch. Someone with #2 and #3 but was short on #1 – well, you can learn C. Which would you rather have on your team: A great C programmer who can only solve easy problems or falls apart under pressure, or a great problem solver who works well under pressure but doesn’t know C very well? The first one is useless – in fact he’s worse than useless, he’s a hindrance to the team. You take the second guy, send him on a five-day C course, and you’re all set. It doesn’t mean that he’s definitely going to turn into an awesome programmer, but he’s certainly got a better shot than the first guy.

“But how does the story end?”

I got the job, and worked for Roger on CorelSCSI Pro from June 1992 until August 1993, when I left Ottawa to start grad school at Western. One of the pieces of software I worked on at Corel was a CD-ROM driver for Novell NetWare, which did not support CD-ROMs at the time. When I started at Sybase in 1997, I was hired to replace someone who happened to be the NetWare guy. My boss saw NetWare on my resume, and I became the new NetWare guy. Twelve years later, I’m still the NetWare guy.

(Geek alert: technophobes stop reading now) I learned something about the C language that day as well – if you have a pointer to type X, then incrementing the pointer by one does not advance the pointer by one byte, it advances it by sizeof(X) bytes. During the interview, that bit of knowledge allowed me to make the code just a little smaller, but it’s such a fundamental part of how pointers work in C that I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve made use of it since then. And I can honestly say that I learned it from Pat Beirne.

Blast from the Past

Gail was looking for some crafty stuff for Ryan to use in a school project, and came across some pencil crayons she must have bought during high school. On the front of the packaging read “You could WIN one of 6 Commodore 64 home computer systems”.

The grand prize is a Commodore 64 Computer (model C64), a Colour Monitor (model 1701) and a Single Disc Drive (model 154), approximate retail value $1,200. The second prize is a Commodore 64 Computer (model C64), approximate retail value $419.95.

The contest closes August 1, 1985. Damn.

$420 for a computer with a 1 MHz 8-bit processor, 38KB of usable RAM, 16 colours, and no persistent storage. You can now get a 4 GB USB drive the size of your finger for $20, which holds the equivalent of over 65,000 Commodore 64’s. The processor is vastly inferior to the one in your average kid’s $4 digital watch.

This shouldn’t be surprising, since we are talking about 23-year-old technology. But once I realize that I shouldn’t be surprised, it just makes me feel old — especially since my first computer was the the Commodore VIC-20, the predecessor to the Commodore 64, which had all of 3.5 KB of usable RAM. But I had a 16KB expansion cartridge, giving me an astounding twenty kilobytes of memory. They even had a 32KB expansion cartridge, but come on. Who could use up 32 KB of memory?

A trip back in time

Last Friday was my annual “ski day” at Devil’s Glen, organized by my second-line manager, Dave. I only ski once a year, though I’d like to increase that to at least a couple of times — maybe I’ll bring the boys out with me, since (a) Gail doesn’t care for downhill skiing, and (b) Nicholas is still free until he’s six. Devil’s Glen has an annual “Men’s Day”, which is when we went last year, but Men’s Day can be pretty busy, so this year Dave decided to have it on the Friday after Men’s Day. There was no free beer or gifts and no prize draws, but it was a little cheaper, the lift lines were almost non-existent and we had less trouble getting tables near each other for the 28 of us, so that was good. It snowed like crazy all day, which made for some treacherous driving on the way home, but the skiing conditions were great.

I used to ski all the time in high school, and now it’s once a year, at most. As a result, whenever I ski nowadays, memories of skiing back in high school come flooding back…

(Everything goes all wavy as we go back in time…)

It’s a Wednesday night in early 1986. I’m sixteen and in grade twelve at Dunbarton High School in Pickering, Ontario. After school ended at 3:30, I put my school stuff in my Adidas bag and head down to the tech wing where my skis and stuff have been stored all day. I find my stuff among the piles of other people’s stuff and head towards the ski club bus. 45 minutes later, we’re at Dagmar Ski Resort in Whitby [This is where I would normally put a link to the Dagmar website,, but it’s incredibly lame (no pictures, no map, nothing) so I refuse to even link it]. We get changed, grab our lift ticket, and hit the slopes.

They’re playing CHUM-FM through speakers at the top and bottom of each lift. [This was back when CHUM-FM was a pop-rock station, not the “easy listening” “adult contemporary” “really boring” stuff they play now]. All evening, we hear songs like “These Dreams” by Heart, “Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco, and “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister. I’m skiing with my friends Glen Fujino and Kevin Day (and others, sorry guys but I don’t remember other names). Glen is a better skier than the rest of us, and likes to do goofy things like spin around and ski backwards in a tuck position. The guys I usually hang around with at school (Faisal, Doug, Paul, Glen) aren’t here because they don’t ski. My fourteen-year-old sister is out here somewhere with her friends as well, and every now and again I see her, but she usually ignores me. The big hill right in front of the chalet is called the Big Daddy, and we spend most of our time on that hill. There’s a little mini-mogul run down the right-hand side, underneath the chair lift. From the top of the lift, you can go left to hit the couple of black diamond runs, but they’re not really all that hard. One’s called the Dive Bomber because about halfway down there’s a drop-off; if you hit that with some speed, you can get some airtime. The other direction from the diamond runs, on the other side of the Big Daddy, are some other narrow intermediate runs, and beyond that are some easy ones, including one called Lover’s Lane. Inexplicably, very few jokes are ever made about this name, which is surprising considering the number of teenage boys here. A guy can yell “Hey, let’s go over to Lover’s Lane!” to a bunch of other guys, and nobody will make any “no way, man, I ain’t gay!” jokes you might expect from guys of our age group and maturity level.

At some point during the evening, we hit the chalet for dinner. This is almost invariably a burger and fries, scarfed down as fast as possible so we can get back out skiing again. At the end of the night, we return to the chalet before boarding the bus for a hot chocolate. After that, we pack up our stuff, put it in the holding area under the bus and get ready for the ride home. Glen, who is teaching himself some really weird computer language called “C”, tells silly jokes the entire way home.

(Everything goes all wavy again as we return to the present…)

Things I worry about now when skiing, but didn’t back then: Can I do the more difficult runs without killing myself or someone else? Will the pain in my legs stop at some point today, or just keep getting worse? How badly are they going to hurt tomorrow? Why haven’t I been doing squats for the last month, like I promised myself last year that I’d do this year?

Things I worried about then but not now: how cool do I look? Where are the cute girls skiing?