Sunday, November 30, 2014

Radio Shack is dying

I grew up at Radio Shack. Long before I became a professional-adult-writer-nerd, I was a child-amateur-writer-nerd. As soon as I was old enough to wander the halls of the local mall on my own, I would gravitate, like a moth to a flame, to the nearest Compucentre or Radio Shack. Once there, I'd park myself in front of whatever computer they happened to have on display, then proceed to program it to display my name repeatedly. It typically looked something like this:

20 GOTO 10

(Modesty was not my strong suit then. Perhaps it still isn't. But I digress.)

Inevitably, a small crowd would gather around as I slowly coaxed a bit of BASIC-based ridiculousness from the monochrome-screened machine. Being in the middle of the scrum was somewhat intoxicating, and in retrospect I think some powerful seeds were being quietly planted for me.

In a 2014 context, those TRS-80s were laughably limited. But at the time, they seemed like almost magical pointers to a boundless future. You knew something changed as soon as they were first installed in the middle of a store better known for its Battery of the Month Club and its chaotically labelled bins of electronic doodads and cables way back in the dimly lit rear corners.

Ah, good times!

Eventually, Radio Shack disappeared from the Canadian retail landscape, with enough lawsuits and branding changes thrown in to make for a great book someday. Many of the old sites became The Source locations, and while they're now owned by Bell, I still get pangs of nostalgia every time I walk into one. The one near my house is a lot neater than the locations from my childhood, but it still feels strangely homey.

Radio Shack continues to function in the U.S., and its inability to transition from the pre-Internet economy to the post-Internet one seems to have left it in the retail equivalent of Neverland: Not quite dead, but nowhere near alive, either. Now that I've become an adult-writer-nerd, I can see just how loudly the clock is ticking. Drop in while you still can. published this brutally harsh first-person piece earlier, by former employee Jon Bois, this week. And if you ever found yourself bathed in the glow of a TRS-80, or engaged in deep, thoughtful discussions with Radio Shack employees on the merits of NiCd vs NiMH - or why those 100-in-one hobby sets were gateways to scientific hooliganism - this is a must-read:
A eulogy for RadioShack, the panicked and half-dead retail empire
Your turn: Thoughts?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Finding the mothership

Orbital view
Outer Space
November 2014
This is the view from a Soyuz spacecraft - specifically TMA-15M - as it approached the International Space Station last Sunday night. I screen-grabbed the image from my iPad as I sat on the couch in my living room. And as much as screen-grabbing something has become somewhat routine in this age of mobile devices and high-speed wireless networks, I didn't want the moment to pass into history without a bit of reflection.

That's because as nonchalant as it might seem to use an iPad to watch a spacecraft dock, live, as it flies around the planet at 25 times the speed of sound, the entire process, and our earthbound involvement in it, is anything but nonchalant or routine.

The technology that allowed me - and thousands more folks like me scattered around the globe - to peer over the shoulder of an astronaut and watch this surreal scene unfold in real-time is nothing short of miraculous. A countless number of tiny moving pieces all had to work flawlessly for the entire moment to happen in the first place - and for it to be shared. And as easy as it seemed within the confines of a 9.7-inch tablet screen, I knew that this stuff was, indeed is, special.

Space is hard. Global communication is hard, too. And the very fact that we live in an age where we can actively participate in moments like this is something that deserves to be marked and celebrated. Just because it's routine doesn't mean it isn't remarkable.

Safe flight to the six space travellers who now live on the ISS. We'll be watching.

Your turn: Something that deserves a second look. Please discuss.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thematic Photographic 318 - Columns and rows

I have no clue what this is
London, ON
November 2014

Thanks for indulging my time challenges this week, folks. I was supposed to have this up and live on Monday night, but life got more than a little busy. So from the better late than never department, here it is.

This week's theme, columns and rows, was inspired by the fact that I've been spending a lot of time staring at spreadsheets. It's a work thing, and it's given me a new appreciation for accountants, as I'm not entirely sure how they handle marathon Excel sessions without going a little off kilter.

Turns out there are lots of column-and-row-themed scenes out there in the real world. Like on my kitchen table. I promise there will be more on the blog through the week, and I invite you to join in the fun.

Your turn: Take a pic that evokes, suggests or even merely hints at this week's theme. Post it to your blog or website and then leave a comment here letting folks know where to find it. Have a pic you posted long ago? Use that, too! Visit other participants and feel free to add more pics to the pile throughout the week: Serial posting is encouraged. For more info on how Thematic works, head here. Thanks gang!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Headed for the horizon

Grand Bend, ON
July 2014
Thematic. Vehicular. Here.
In photography, I've learned that simple always seems to work better than the alternative. Pick one thing and build the story around it. Don't get distracted by details, or tangential threads, or anything that pulls viewers away from the one thing you want them to take away from the experience.

Easier said than done, mind you, because the planet can be a pretty busy place, with all sorts of overlapping layers of chaos that can make it a challenge to maintain focus on that mythical One Thing.

But that's the reason photography can be such a joy in the first place. Because if you allow it, the craft provides ample opportunity to slice away complexity and use your powers of composition and technical chops to tell the story in the way only you can tell it.

Your turn: What's the "one story" you want to tell today?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Kindly make room for cyclists

Ride on
Toronto, ON
November 2014
Bikes are vehicles, too. More Thematic here.
Slowly but surely, cities are starting to get serious about building proper bike lanes into street grids that for too long have belonged entirely to cars.

I drive both two- and four-wheeled vehicles, and while there's more than enough lousy behavior among both cyclists and motorists, it's clear that we could be doing more to encourage a more sustainable urban landscape that doesn't force cyclists to take their lives into their hands every time they want to ride to work.

Maybe if lanes like this were less of an exception, motorists wouldn't feel compelled to squeeze us to the side of the road as they rush toward the Tim Horton's drive-through lineup. Maybe they'd do themselves some good by leaving the car at home every once in a while and trying to ride in for a change. Might open their eyes a little.

I know: As if that'll happen in our lifetime. But one can still dream.

Your turn: How do you get to work?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

When you cross paths with a stranger

The scene: Downtown London, lunchtime. The temperature has plunged below zero and wisps of snow blow in ever-changing patterns across the cracked pavement under a steel-grey sky. I'm heading back to the office after running a quick errand.

For the first time this season I'm wearing my coat and woolies, but as tightly as I've drawn my scarf around my neck, it isn't good enough, and I can feel the first shivers of winter tiptoe their way over my neck and down my back as I stand alone on the street corner and wait for the pedestrian light to turn.

I shake it off and pull my coat in tighter. The cold doesn't go away. The light still hasn't changed.

Soon enough, I'm startled out of my seasonal reverie by a small voice coming from somewhere behind me.

"Hi, I'm Annie."

I turn quickly around and see a silver-haired woman in a worn-at-the-edges ski jacket walking an old bike on the sidewalk. She's standing just close enough to me that I wonder if she's ever seen Seinfeld's bit about close-talkers. But she seems to have a kind face, with equally kind eyes, so I don't feel remotely worried. Just curious. So I answer her.

"Hi Annie. I like your bike."

And I do. It's an old bike, its best days behind it. It's been painted bright pink. That wasn't its original color, though, as betrayed by the spray paint overrun on the rims, tire sidewalls, seat post and handlebars. But for some reason her beaten down machine speaks to me. It's the kind of cruiser bike the ladies in the town where I grew up used to ride - to the bakery, to the community centre, wherever - and they never locked them up. Just left them, fenders, baskets, springy-wide white vinyl seats and all, leaning on the outside of the store or the front lawn or the sidewalk. And they were always there when they got back.

"Thank you. What's your name?"

I'm taken aback for a second, not quite sure how to answer her. My don't-divulge-too-much-to-strangers gene immediately dictates I either duck and run, or come up with some fake nom-de-plume. My curiosity dips a bit as my suspicion spikes by an equal amount. I look around to see if she has a partner nearby ready to pick my pocket. Nothing. I look back at her face. Still kind. Still smiling. She just wants to talk. I tuck my suspicion away for good.

"Hi Annie. I'm Carmi. Nice to meet you."

This opens the floodgates, as in the relatively few seconds we have while the lights overhead beep and count themselves down, she proceeds to share where she's been that morning - the mission, a bar I've never heard of, and the corner of Richmond and Dundas where the folks waiting for social services like to hang out - and where she's going. The Beer Store.

She asks me if I know someone named Donald. I don't, but she tells me about their last date, anyway, and, with a wink, how I really don't want to know what they did afterward.

I find myself alternately enjoying this admittedly bizarre moment and wishing I could somehow fix whatever it is that compels someone to drink on a weekday morning and then wander the streets on a badly spray-painted pink bicycle before drinking some more.

And yet, she seemed happy. Content, even, to wander and chat. She wasn't stinking drunk - more pleasantly buzzed than anything else, and even then I wasn't absolutely sure - and she wasn't remotely rude. More like a social gadfly who makes everyone around her think a little harder about their own lot in life. Makes others wonder about the choices they made this morning, and years ago.

She didn't ask for money. Didn't ask me for anything beyond my name. Simply wanted to have a conversation on a cold street corner with a complete stranger. Simply wanted to share a snippet of her day. Simply wanted to connect.

Soon enough, the light changed and she began to wrap up her story. Yet even as she started to walk her old pink bike across the street and away from me, she continued to speak, that kind face with the kind eyes not allowing me to simply walk away.

I haven't seen Annie or her pink bike in the couple of weeks since our paths first crossed, yet of all the people I've seen downtown since I started working again in the core, she stands out as the most memorable, the one I wonder what happened to.

Whoever she is or wherever she ended up, I hope her journey since has been a safe one. And I hope more strangers in the big city have the courage to share bits and pieces of themselves, if only for a few seconds. Our modern existence may dictate keeping our heads down and eyes diverted as we do everything in our power to avoid surreptitious human contact. But in those few cold seconds on a downtown London street corner, I learned it doesn't necessarily need to be that way.

Enjoy the bike, Annie. And thanks for the impromptu lesson in humanity.

Your turn: The time you had a chat with a complete stranger. And...go!

Friday, November 21, 2014

On why we were born

"The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why."
Mark Twain
Hmm, this one makes me think. Why are we here?

Your turn: Why were you born?

It's a Jeep thing

Stopped in its tracks
London, ON
November 2014
For more vehicular-themed Thematic, click here
As much as I don't ever see myself driving a vehicle painted in such a bright color - way too attention-getting - I admire folks who do. I imagine it takes a certain kind of whimsy to decide you're going to park one of these things out front for the next bunch of years, and I wish I had a little more of whatever makes them tick embedded in my own DNA.

Until my genetic code gets rewritten, I'll admire their wheels from afar. Or, in this case, up-close. I caught this lovely example of a Jeep Wrangler on my way back to the office from an early interview, and secretly thanked whoever drives it for giving the rest of us an extra, colorful reason to smile.

Your turn: Most modern cars are painted in colors that are too boring for words. Agree? Disagree? Please discuss.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

On politeness

"Politeness is an inexpensive way to make friends."
William Feather
I think the action items from this are quite clear. Don't you?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Thematic Photographic 317 - Vehicular Etc.

City lights
London, ON
November 2014
No matter what side of the car-love-hate equation you happen to fall on, you can't ignore their dominance of the urban and suburban environment. From the moment you first step out of the house in the morning, your entire experience will, in ways large and small, be defined by the overwhelming presence of automobiles and the infrastructure designed to support them.

For what it's worth, I lean toward bicycles. Way more fun. Healthier, too.

Your turn: Take a picture that supports, evokes or otherwise reflects this week's theme, "vehicular, etc."‎ Post it to your blog or website, then pop back here to leave a comment so folks know where to find it. Visit other participants to double - or even triple - your photographic fun. Head here to learn more about how Thematic works. Feel free to share additional photos through the week. Friends are always welcome.

A little extra zing

I wanted to end off this week's "food from the earth" theme - head here for any last-minute submissions - with a reminder that ‎even something as seemingly insignificant as a radish can be meaningful in its own way.

Bear with me. There's method to my vegetarian madness.

The scene: I'm shopping for groceries - at the Great Canadian Superstore, because the Mediocre Canadian Superstore was closed last Sunday - and I'm wandering through the vegetable aisle. I come across the radish bin and stop. For reasons I don't quite understand, I linger over them for a bit. Maybe it's the color. Or perhaps the texture.

Then it hits me: I haven't eaten these in a while. I remember my mom used to toss them into salads when I was a kid, but being the silly boy that I was, I didn't fully appreciate the virtues of vegetables, and inevitably tried to drown the poor things in pools of dressing. In retrospect, ew.

My childhood food issues aside, the radishes always stood out. They had this neat bite to them, an extra zip of taste and an equally sharp texture. If a vegetable went to finishing school, I always surmised it would come out looking like a radish.

Which largely explains my little photographic moment all these years later. Because some seeds take a little longer than others to take root.

Your turn: ‎Your most/least favorite veggie is...? Why?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Renaissance comes to London

London's downtown has had its fair share of difficulty in recent years. In many respects it's no different than any other central core area that's struggled with the flight to the suburbs and endless debates over parking, traffic, empty storefronts and scary streetscapes as soon as the office workers leave for the day.

While the civic agenda was preoccupied with fraudulent mayors and bullying councillors, a quietly diligent group of entrepreneurs has been working largely beneath the radar to change that trajectory. Job by job, block by block, they've been bringing life back to a place that many once wrote off. In doing so, they're laying the groundwork for a very different - and significantly more agile and opportunity-filled - city than the one I thought I was moving to all those years ago.

I'm proud to say I'm now part of that story - I joined a couple of months ago as their senior writer. Our offices are right in the middle of the downtown renaissance zone, and more importantly we are one of those digital companies doing world-beating work that most Londoners may never otherwise see.

London Free Press reporter Kate Dubinski published a piece, The downtown you don’t know - but should, in the paper on Friday, and as tickled as I am that we're mentioned, it's the fact that we're not alone, and that we're part of a bigger story of urban renewal, that jazzes me.

Exciting times around here.

Your turn: What's exciting in your neck of the woods?

Found: Cover art for my next horror film

Eddie Murphy would be proud
London, ON
October 2014
Thematic. Food from the earth. Here.
I'm somewhat pleased that the pumpkins have been recycled and the world can now focus its attention on spending itself deeper into debt so that merchants can have a happy holiday shopping season. Yay for retail priorities!

Please note that I have nothing against the pumpkins themselves. While I fail to appreciate their taste or texture - and don't pull me into the pumpkin spiced latte debate, because that's just a vortex of culinary sadness masquerading as urban myth - I somewhat enjoy taking pictures of them during the brief period when they dominate the landscape.

They have so much character as passive photographic subjects that it's difficult to ignore them when there's a camera nearby. Which, in my world, is something of a constant.

I don't know what's going on with this particular one, though. Perhaps a rash of some sort. Or an aversion to my kitchen table. Weird surface growth notwithstanding, I found the shadows too fascinating to pass up. So I didn't, and I hope when some bizarre-looking subject reaches out to you, too, that you find yourself doing the same thing.

I can't wait to see what you come up with.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

When stuff looks like an animal, 163rd in a series

I don't tend to hang out much by the roots-from-the-earth bins in the vegetable section of the grocery store - probably an aversion to dirty things that look like they'd make better weapons in a neighborhood snowball fight than something sane humans would consider eating.

But this one spoke to me. Maybe "spoke" is the wrong word. It whispered. In the dulcet tones that only a bunny-rabbit-shaped root-like thing could muster. Call me smitten. Call the person behind me confused as I lined up the shot and smiled limply at her, the same smile I seem to flash every other confused stranger who happens to be nearby when I get that photographic inspiration and start snapping away.

Hop on, little buddy. Looks like I'll be back in this part of the store before long.

Your turn: Am I imagining things or do you see it, too?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Thematic Photographic 316 - Food from the earth

London, ON
November 2014
I had a bit of a moment in the grocery store the other day. I was in the fresh produce section when I came across a knot of other shoppers. This being London, no one quite knew which way to go, so it didn't take long before a hopeless traffic jam of shopping carts stopped everyone in their tracks before, polite Canadians that we are, we slowly extricated ourselves from the brightly lit commercial kill zone.

As I stood in the middle of the grocery-festooned zoo, I found myself staring at the almost embarrassing overflow of goods available for sale. The fruits and vegetables made for quite the riot of colors and textures virtually everywhere I looked, and I couldn't help but think that any planet that can create all this cool, edible stuff has got to be a pretty magical place indeed.

I don't even know what I shot in this particular frame, but I decided it was interesting enough to use as the launch photo for this week's theme, food from the earth. Are you game?

Your turn: Take a photo that evokes or suggests this week's "food from the earth" theme. Post it to your blog or website, then leave a comment here letting other folks know where to find it. Visit other participants, and feel free to share additional pics through the week. If you're new to Thematic, or want to explain it to a newbie, head here. Otherwise, happy shooting. Can't wait to see what you come up with this week!

On being considerate

“One of my main regrets in life is giving considerable thought to inconsiderate people.”
Jarod Kintz
It's funny how life beats the need to prioritize into your head. We don't necessarily appreciate why spending our time wisely matters as much as it does - until we come close to having no time left at all. From that moment on, time becomes precious, and those who would squander it on our behalf, namely the inconsiderate ones, become that much easier to leave behind.

So, over to you: Will you stop giving thought - and time, and energy, and attention - to inconsiderate people? How will you make this happen?

(Hat tip to Cloudia Charters, who pens the delightful Comfort Spiral and who never ceases to inspire, for sharing this.)

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Work/life balance

Don't let the world intrude
Laval, QC
August 2014

Thematic metallica. Here. (Yes, that's aluminum)

Writing doesn't always fit a 9-to-5 schedule. Assignments bounce into your inbox at all hours of the day and night, the news cycle does its thing whether you're awake or asleep, and the complexities of juggling your life often result in laptops being pulled out of their sleeves at the strangest times and in the oddest of places.

At the same time, that teenaged boy making his way across the deep end of the pool at his grandfather's condo in the photo above isn't going to be a teenaged boy forever. And he isn't going to want to hang with his dad forever, either. So when he asked if we could go down to the pool for a bit, "no" wasn't an option for a whole lot of reasons.

And yet, deadlines beckoned and life on the outside continued to do its thing. The world doesn't stop just because you've decided to chill out for a bit. So I toted my backpack-full-of-tech with us to the pool, and set myself up on the lovely outdoor furniture you see here.

It didn't take long for me to finish what I was working on so I could get back to the very serious business of simply watching our son be the little boy that he still is. Someone, after all, needed to time his laps, suggest changes to his stroke and complain about the bugs that always seem to come out as the sun begins to set.

I appreciate that when deadlines beckon, the folks on the other end of all that geeky equipment you see here don't care much that you have a life outside of the narrow window of work that guides your professional relationships. They want you to deliver so that they can keep their lights on. And you need to deliver so that you can keep your own lights on.

But unless we find room in all that keeping-the-lights-on-focused activity for moments like this, we'll never know what it's like to snapshot an indelible moment in the life of a child. Or feel like all that busy work we do on the outside is being done for some higher purpose.

Because if the work is all that matters, to the exclusion of seemingly small moments like the one you see here, then it doesn't really matter much at all, does it?

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The K-Car time machine

Quick, get me Lee Iacocca
London, ON
November 2014
Thematic. Metallica. Here.
‎You don't see a lot of these on the road anymore. In their day, Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant coupes, sedans and wagons (remember those?) dominated the North American concrete jungle. They were cheap, simple, and relatively huge on the inside. As the typical vehicle like this was often the only car at that price point that could seat six, it often won the buy decision based simply on its carrying capacity.

Alas, they were, um, not all that refined. I'm being gentle here. They may have singlehandedly saved Chrysler from oblivion, but in the near-post Malaise Era‎, when vehicle quality was something of an oxymoron, the K-Car twins defined the worst of the lot.

Still, there were enough made that they continued to clutter around for years, and now that their slow fade to the junk yard is almost complete, seeing one in the wild has become something of a special occasion.

So I did what any dark geek would do: Grabbed a few pics of this ancient conveyance before the owner returned and busted me. Until Mother nature turns the rest of this tired old car to rust, I see life in her old bones yet.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Thematic Photographic 315 - Metallica

Shiny train at night
London, ON
November 2014
I've chosen "metallica" as this week's Thematic theme because of its ability to shift its look and feel based on the prevailing conditions. Change the light a little and it's a whole new ballgame. Which means you can keep coming back to the same subjects and stand a reasonable chance of capturing them in a completely different way.

If variety is the spice of life, I'm guessing it had some metallic, reflective qualities baked in.

Your turn: Take a metallic-themed picture, post it to your blog or website, then pop back here and leave a comment to let folks know where to find it. Visit other participants throughout the week to spread the fun around a little, and feel free to post additional contributions to the theme if the creative urge strikes again. For more info on how Thematic works, head here. If you tweet, use the #ThematicPhotographic hashtag. Otherwise, metallic-themed photographic joy awaits. Have fun with it!

A view from the train

Rolling artwork
Woodstock, ON
November 2014
Thematic. Round (it has wheels!) Here.
I'm headed to Toronto today for some meetings with some really cool people, but that doesn't mean I can't steal a few minutes along the way for a little photographic therapy.

I've left the supposedly "real" camera at home today. I just couldn't fathom stuffing a DSLR into my laptop bag, then stopping every few minutes to put the bag down, take the camera out, shoot, put it away, then repeat a few minutes later.

Plus, the prospect of walking into a meeting with a bag overflowing with doodads that have nothing to do with said meeting made me feel like those folks who pack ginormous bags for a three-day trip, then try to stuff them into the overhead bins on the plane while the rest of us stand in line and watch.

So it's just me and a smartphone. Will my Passport hold up to the pressure? Stay tuned.

Your turn: Shooting with a smartphone...yes or no? Why/why not?

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Get your gourd on

Convenient handle included
London, ON
October 2014
Thematic. Round. Here. (It's not too late.)

I think it's only a matter of time before the good folks at the grocery store forcibly remove me from the premises for my spontaneous photography.

Granted, given the fact that my ninja-photography weapon of choice is now a somewhat lower-profile BlackBerry Passport instead of a relatively obvious Nikon DSLR, it's a lot easier to fly below the stock-boy's radar. But I suspect there are only so many ways to fake like you're reading your grocery list before someone realizes you're actually shooting the pumpkins.

Which is what I did here. Because nature works in some amazing ways, and you miss all the fun if you don't commit the moment to pixels.

In the end, I think it's a risk worth taking.

Your turn: It's time for a photographic challenge. This week, take a picture in a place you normally wouldn't shoot. Post it and share a link/comment here. Time to expand our horizons a little, no?

Four score...

My dad would have been 80 today. He died just over 5 years ago, and ever since then I haven't quite known what the most appropriate way to mark November 2nd might be. Do you celebrate? Mourn? Something in between?

I'm pretty sure there's no one, universal answer for this question just as there's no one, universal answer for any other question revolving around losses like this. You do what makes sense to you, what feels right, what helps you move forward. And in the process you learn to ignore those who seem to have no problem spontaneously disagreeing with your choices.

It's been an interesting journey since we lost him. I've learned at a profound level just how important it is to hold on to those who are most important to you. My understanding of the word "family" has undergone a fairly radical re-think since then. Whereas it was once very much tied to the family tree, it's evolved significantly in the years since.

I've learned to hold on ever tighter to my immediate family, my wife, our kids, the friends in our community who may as well be family. I've learned to gravitate toward the good souls, wherever they may be, who reflect our values, and I've learned to listen to that inner voice instead of the voices of others. I'd like to think that I've grown as a person, which is more or less what any parent wants for a child.

Maybe my own brush with fate changed the way I look at things. Maybe I simply wanted to make the best use of the limited time I've got - indeed, that we've all got - on this planet. For all the challenges he faced in the last few years of his life, my father was adept at finding the good in a moment, at enjoying something for what it was, and boiling it down to its most elemental form. It's a decent trait to carry forward, so that's what I've been trying to do.

Eighty years to the day since his journey began, and just over five years after it ended, I hope I've figured out how internalize and exemplify the best that was him. I'm guessing it's what he would have wanted, and I'm guessing it's what we always hope to teach our own children so that they, too, will grow something inspirational from the seeds we've been planting all along.

Looks like I had some pretty good seeds to start with. Thanks Dad.