Category Archives: Life

Online Communities

The COVID-19 pandemic affects all of us. Physical distancing guidelines mean we stay at home except for runs to the grocery and drug store. Physical distancing doesn’t necessarily mean social distancing, however. Not completely.

Software such as Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, and others, allow you to interact visually with people from, well, anywhere. Emails, messaging apps, and social media such as Facebook and Instagram also allow us to keep in touch.

It’s not the same, though, is it? Of course, it can’t be, not even if we had Star Trek-like holographic communicators. It’s no substitute for being in the same space with someone. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and we’re lucky that we live in an age where so many means of communication are open to us.

It fascinates me how Twitter has come into its own during this crisis, and has allowed communities to interact with one another in real time. By community, I mean groups of people with shared interests, no matter where they are in the world.

I often write about Doctor Who, and those who enjoy the show and its spin-off media are certainly a kind of community, one which has been very active these past weeks. Emily Cook (@Emily_Rosina), of Doctor Who Magazine fame, has organized several global Doctor Who watch-alongs. She selects an episode, sets up a time, and everyone starts watching at the same time and can contribute to a Twitter dialog. She’s managed to snag previous showrunners Stephen Moffat and Russell T. Davies, and many cast members, including David Tennant and Matt Smith. TardisMonkey (@tardis_monkey) has done the same with some notable “classic” Doctor Who episodes, including “The Five Doctors” and the upcoming watch-along, “The Three Doctors”.

Lily May Sherratt (@IreneWildthyme) has organized some listen-alongs with content from Big Finish Productions. Among these were the four Paul Spragg Memorial Short Trips, including “Forever Fallen”, “Landbound”, “Last Day at Work”, and “The Best-Laid Plans”, with live Twitter commentary from the authors, including yours truly. Big Finish themselves recently organized a global listen-along to the Eighth Doctor story, “The Chimes of Midnight”.

There are other types of community projects. For example, for the past few weeks, seven authors of Big Finish Short Trips have collaborated on a Doctor Who fan fiction story, one tweet at a time. With a couple of weeks to go, we’ve just topped 1,000 words. Almost surprisingly, the story is working out pretty well. I say “almost surprisingly” because there’s been no coordinated plotting, and none of us has any idea what will come from a given day’s tweet. It’s been a fascinating experiment in minimalistic writing, because you need to keep your word count down while moving the story forward in some way. All in 280 characters. Look out for the hashtag, #WhoFicTweets.

Aside from being an interesting exercise in collaboration, particularly as I’ve never collaborated with other writers before, I find it’s given me a nice feeling of connection with the other writers. And in these times, we can use all the connections that we can get.

I would urge you, if you’re at wits end during this extended period of lockdown, to seek out community members with similar interests and engage in some activity, be it a creative endeavour or not. Don’t disparage the notion of online friends and colleagues. There are a bunch of people that I’ve “met” online, through writing fan fiction or in the world of Doctor Who, and I’ve enjoyed these relationships very much.

There’s many rewards to be had in the social media space. Just, you know, stay away from the trolls.

Tragedy Strikes Ottawa

Downtown Ottawa puts on quite a show at Christmas time. At night, the city is lit by thousands of multicoloured lights, particularly on Parliament Hill. Once upon a time you could drive right up from Wellington onto the hill along the crescent-shaped lane to get an up close look. Not any more, not since a guy drove his vehicle right up the steps of the Centre Block, nearly crashing right through the doors.

yogaPedestrians, however, are still welcome. If you’re in town at noon hour on a fine Wednesday, you’ll witness a unique sight as hundreds of enthusiasts lay down their mats and practice yoga. As fine an example as any of Canada’s open, tolerant, and peaceful society.

But the peace was shattered last Wednesday when a soldier standing on ceremonial guard duty in front of the Canadian War Memorial was shot in the back. Minutes later, the same gunman stormed the Canadian Parliament buildings. At the entrance he struggled with a guard. After shooting the guard in the foot he gained entry to the Center Block building and the Hall of Honour. Soon thereafter he was killed in a firefight with security personnel.

The slain soldier, Nathan Cirillo, was a reservist. He was a 24 year old single father to a five year old boy. This was indeed a day of tragedy. It was also a day of heroism. Immediately upon his getting shot, a group of civilians rushed to Cirillo’s aid, attempting to staunch the bleeding, keep him breathing, and keep his heart beating. One spoke to him as they administered first aid, telling him that he was loved, he was brave, he was so loved.

The guy who took down the shooter wasn’t your typical action hero movie star. At least, not going by appearance. Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers, a man in his late 50’s, strikes you more as the fatherly type. But on this day he was definitely a hero and was just in time. When the gunman was brought down, he was within easy reach of members of all the political parties, including the Prime Minister. Thing is, after a day like that, Vickers resumed his duties in the House of Commons the following day looking like nothing extraordinary had happened. Just another day at the office.

Another, quieter act of heroism occurred on Cape Breton Island, where a 15 year old girl donned her cadet’s uniform and stood guard for hours in the pouring rain in front of the local war memorial in order to honour Nathan Cirillo.

The events of the day brought Ottawa to a standstill. Government buildings and buildings within the downtown core were locked down for most of the day. Among the thousands of people affected were my wife and son, and yes, it was nerve wracking. At the time, no one knew how many shooters were on the loose. People were advised to stay off the streets and away from windows.

Today, Cirillo is being buried in his home town of Hamilton. As we pay our respects, we consider the events that led to his death. It’s sobering to think how the actions of one individual can create such tragedy and bring a city to a standstill. It’s still debatable the extent to which the shooter’s actions were the result of “radicalization” versus mental illness. But perhaps motives matter less than the question of what do we do now? After an unprecedented act of violence against the seat of government, it has to be tempting to over-react, to give authorities more power in order to try to prevent such events from happening again. But care must be taken that in doing so we don’t sacrifice the very freedoms that we’re trying to protect, that people like Nathan Cirillo died to protect.

We must all remain vigilant. Not only against acts of terror, but against the gradual erosion of our precious freedoms. Life is about balance. Finding the right balance is hard, but it’s something we must all strive towards.

Homeward Bound

Who says you can’t go home again? Of course you can.

As proof, I present a recent reunion for our School of Computing. Our gang met there in the ’80’s. You remember that decade. Synth-pop, hair dryers, shoulder pads, Ghostbusters, Flashdance, The Big Chill. I’m about the only one I know who still thinks women’s shoulder pads look pretty cool.

Kingston_University_TownWe were graduate students in what was then a small department. We had offices. Offices! We shared them, four to an office. It was heaven. A terminal room down the hall provided a few of us at a time with access to the considerable computing power of a VAX 780 running BSD UNIX. We were living on the cutting edge.

We worked hard. Well, pretty hard. Most of the time. Our courses were intense and we only survived by helping each other. Teamwork in the face of adversity. It brought us that much closer together. Fridays were hockey in the winter and softball in the summer, followed by a few beers and some crazy dancing at the Grad Club, that tiny, multi-floored, dimly lit home away from home. Bill and Georgette, we loved you as you took us under the boardwalk.

Close friendships were forged in those days. Some of us even found spouses within the group. In some cases, despite getting off on not quite the right foot. When I found my office that September, I couldn’t help but notice it was blessed with a terminal. We didn’t have to go down the hall like all those plebes in my class. My wife came to my attention when she unceremoniously stole that terminal. She mumbled some thin excuse about it belonging to her lab. I was quite put out. Things got better.

Many of our group made it back for the reunion. Some of us live an easy two-hour drive away. One guy had an eight-hour drive. Another flew hundreds of miles. So yes, to some extent we’ve gone our separate ways. But you know what? When we were all together, back where it all started, the atmosphere was electric, and we picked right up where we left off. The nearly thirty years since we graduated melted away like a Dairy Queen ice cream left in the sun on a hot summer’s day.

With one exception. We finished the reunion weekend with a baseball game. After about five innings, us old timers were near to begging for mercy and we called it. And boy, those legs were stiff on Monday morning. A sign of aging? Maybe. But in our defence I’d point out that we stayed up past midnight. Two nights in a row!

There’s been adversity, of course, in the intervening years. For instance, many of us have had children. Even worse, some have had some real health scares, and have shown tremendous courage forging through them. It makes the rest of us all the more appreciative that we’re all still here.

Want to know the definition of a good friend? Here you go: Even if you haven’t seen them for weeks, months, years, or even decades, when you do see them, you pick right up where you left off and it feels like no time whatsoever has gone by, except that somehow you have more stories to tell each other.

Good friends, good times.


As I’ve been offline for a while, a bunch of random thoughts have bubbled to the surface. So, onward.

Give Godzilla a miss, or at least wait for it to show up on Netflix. You’ll thank me.

The next 50 years of Doctor Who start in August. While it was probably wise to have a hiatus after the madness of last year, still, one does go through withdrawal after a while.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is well worth seeing. (Minor spoilers ahead.) It strives valiantly to tidy up a number of messy plot threads from the other X-Men movies and succeeds for the most part. It features an unbelievably strong cast, some of whom are limited to little more than cameos. Most importantly, it wipes the travesty that was X-Men 3 off the map.

I’m starting to wonder: Is it any less work to world build for a short story than a novel? I suspect not. Developing the backstory for my original fantasy story, an urban fantasy but with elements of classic mythology, has been a fascinating experience.

Next up on my fanfic list is a sequel to the Firefly/Castle crossover, “A Firefly in the Castle”. This one will be called “Castle Serenity”. And yes, this time Castle and Beckett travel to the future.

I recently spent a night in Philadelphia due to a missed connection. A few people expressed disbelief that I neglected to take full advantage of the layover by not sampling a Philly cheesesteak. Will correct that next time.

The same junket that stranded me in Philadelphia also netted an opportunity to meet Mary Robinette Kowal in San Diego at a book signing. It was quite a treat as I believe she’s the first professional author that I’ve met. And not only does she write very well, she has a rich, multifaceted voice that’s a joy to listen to. It’s a voice that serves her well in her other profession as puppeteer. She also reads audio books.

On the topic of books, I find myself going back to re-read old favourites, mixing them in between new publications. The current old book may take a while, Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. Not just because it’s long, but because I read Dickens very slowly, savouring each beautiful phrase. Ah, to write like that…

Do Me a Solid

Don’t you just love the things in your life that are really solid? That you can really count on?

There are some brands and products I’ve encountered that fit that description. Did you ever own a Nintendo Super NES console? We bought one back in the day. It was a memorable day, actually, because my son was young enough and excited enough that he blurted out, “You’re the best dad ever!”

But that aside, the Super NES still works, some 20 years later. Amazing. Then there was the N64 console and Super Mario 64, which I would have no problem nominating as one of the best games ever. The console was rock solid and the game was huge. As in, there were a huge number of places to explore, and I couldn’t count how many ways you could command Mario to move.

Sadly, there aren’t too many products that would put in this category. I love London Fog as a brand. I’ve had one of their coats for years, and have used their umbrellas. Apple’s iPad might have been once, but since iOS 7, mine has crashed numerous times while app switching. It comes back up again quickly, but still.

Sometimes a thing just makes you feel like it must be solid. For instance: Had a problem with the car and called up a service station. The guy that picked up the phone said, “Rocky speaking.”

Rocky. Any car shop that hires a guy called Rocky has got to be the real deal. They got my business and did a good job. Naturally.

What’s solid in your life?

A Beautiful Truth

Did you ever get the uneasy feeling that the world you thought you were living in wasn’t quite real? Real in the sense that things you thought were true in fact might not be?

Sounds like the cue for a fantasy story, but sadly, it’s not fantasy, it’s reality.

For example, one could be forgiven for thinking–or perhaps a man could be forgiven for thinking this–that by now women were doing OK. That men had learned to treat them as equals, deserving of respect for their own individual merits. Seems like a no-brainer in the 21st century, don’t you think?

But is belief in this beautiful truth, that all people are created equal, only skin deep? There is an abundance of evidence that this might be the case. Let me cite some anecdotal examples.

Here in Ottawa, at one of the local universities, there were two front page stories in a matter of days. One in which a woman was allegedly sexually assaulted by members of the men’s hockey team, and another in which the student leader was the subject of a sexually violent online conversation.

Then there’s the sexually-oriented attack on Mary Robinette Kowal from some male members of the Science Fiction Writers Association, as I mentioned in an earlier post.

And the latest from that community, the ill-advised selection of Jonathan Ross, known for his verbal abuse of women in his performances, as MC for the Hugo awards ceremony. At a time when healing is needed, what a brilliant choice. I’ve never seen Mr. Ross in action, but by all accounts it seemed that the Hugos were hurtling towards a disaster of 2013 Oscars proportions. Anyone remember the travesty that was Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance?

After a Twitter storm, Mr. Ross resigned as MC. But what were the organizers thinking of in the first place?

Finally, an amazing incident in which a passenger on a WestJet flight left a note for the captain, written on a napkin, to the effect that the airplane cockpit was no place for a woman.

Wow. Come on, guys, are we really so threatened by successful women? Have we learned nothing over the past few decades?

Perhaps the hardest thing to accept is that the problem seems equally prevalent amongst young, university-aged men as men of my generation, who could almost–but not really–be forgiven, having grown up in an era when most moms stayed at home and baked and cleaned.

Why don’t all us men take a breath and agree on the following:

  1. We will not make sexually hostile comments about women, even in private conversation.

  2. We will call out anyone who does.

  3. Even if deep down you believe that women should stay at home (you might want to get some help for that), you will behave as if you don’t believe that, and treat the women around you with the same respect as if she were a man.

Is that so hard?

Life, the Universe and Everything

the little prince

Life. Don’t talk to me about life.

Actually, do.

A few of us were talking about the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies the other day. One friend opined that they were boring. Well, I thought, that’s different. But her comment got me thinking about my reaction when I first watched The Fellowship of the Ring. I was stunned, and I sat back in the chair and said to myself, I’m glad I’m alive to see this. It was a great moment.

Sometimes its the arts, a particular movie or a beloved book. Anyone read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince? Other times it’s nature, whether sitting by the pond in the local park, or walking on a quiet trail in the Gatineau Hills in complete peace, with no sound but the rustling of leaves and the whistling of birds.

What makes you glad to be alive?

Mostly Harmless?

With apologies to Douglas Adams.

The brief entry for planet Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the e-book with the words “Don’t Panic” written in large, friendly letters on the cover, has recently been updated.

earth 1 : mostly harmless 2 : best known as the site of the second ugliest building in the universe, which of course is the ironically named Algonquin Centre for Construction guideExcellence, Ottawa, Canada; the irregular, asymmetrical and drab building includes vegetation on the rooftop, reflecting nostalgia felt by the earth’s ape-like inhabitants for the trees from which they recently descended; bipedal species should note that the sight of the building can produce symptoms ranging from headaches and nausea to complete mental breakdown; protoplasmic species are urged to avoid the building at all costs as in all likelihood they will explode into puddles of goo; in general, the building appears to produce effects similar to that of Vogon poetry.

An earlier version of this was posted elsewhere. However, the building is still ugly.


Was there ever a more magical activity than skating? Ottawa is home to the longest outdoor skating rink the world, the Rideau Canal Skateway, boasting some 7.8 kilometers of uninterrupted ice. And this has been a banner year for the canal. The weather has been nearly perfect and much of the canal seems as smooth as an indoor rink. There’s just something about bright sunshine, blue skies, refreshing cold air in your lungs, and the look of happiness on everyone you skate by. The BeaverTails don’t hurt either. So far this year I’ve been good and refrained from indulging, but that might not last. In fact, it almost certainly won’t.  Few things are better for the soul than to skate a few kilometers, then stop for a steaming BeaverTail and cup of hot chocolate.

IMG_0528 - Version 2

Skating is a very welcoming sport. On the same ice surface you’ll see everyone from beginners, lacing up for the first time, to seasoned pros blasting down the ice on speed skates. On that spectrum, I tend to fall closer to the beginner, but just

advanced enough that I don’t often fall. Woo hoo! I learned to skate on the canal which was both good and bad. The fact that it’s so long forces you to practice, that’s the good. The challenge is right in front of you. You just have to skate the whole thing. Or as much of it as you can manage. The bad part is that since it’s so long and straight, you never learn to turn and seldom need to stop. In the beginning, my stopping strategy was to spot a snow bank and plow into it. My turning strategy was to first stop then aim myself in the desired direction. Simple, but effective.

Our Winterlude festival is in full force and my favourite event has always been the ice sculptures. I’ll post a photo of one them. How anyone can get so much detail carved into ablock of ice is a deep mystery. Hmmm. That sounds like a story waiting to be written, how an ancient enclave of magicians uses deep magic to carve runes and symbols into ice. The hero wields a sword of ice, hard as diamond, that never melts. Right. That’s my queue to put down the pen and think some more about winter wizards and swords of ice.

Whatever form winter takes where you are, I hope you’re able to make the most of it. ‘till next time…