Unrecognisable as Me

When the beta versions of Apple's iOS 13 were released, I put the test operating system on a work tablet in order to begin testing various corporate sites and software. In addition to the updated core applications, though, iOS 13 brought Apple's "Animoji" to the older devices that I use on a daily basis. This is something that I've seen on occasion from friends and family who have sent messages, but was new to me. One of the first things that a person needs to do before using these animated emotional icons is to customise the look of the face "to reflect our own unique style". I did so, paying careful attention to detail, and saw a face that I thought looked like me right up until I saw two dozen of them waiting to be used.

Despite looking similar to me, all but one of these faces are completely unrecognisable as me.

My Face as an Animoji

The problem is that these avatars are far too expressive. Very, very rarely will people see this much emotion on my face … even when I'm really happy. While it's probably unlikely to happen with older devices, it would be nice to see an option to tone the feelings down a bit. Ideally there would be a toggle that reads "Look like a Vulcan" as that would be much closer to how I generally look from day to day.

All this said, there is one face that looks like me. Unfortunately it's not one that I would consider using with the people I send messages to.

Oblivious

When people talk about responsibility there is often a comment or two about the weight associated with the burden as though the duty were tangible and made of lead. When asked, the most common "heavy responsibilities" are generally children, the mortgage, bills, and possibly the care of an elderly or sick family member. There is no denying that these can require a phenomenal amount of personal time and resources and, should any be neglected for a sufficient period of time, the consequences could be absolutely dire. Ignore the bills, and modern luxuries like cell phones and working plumbing are disabled. Forget the mortgage for a while and you can wind up homeless. Disregard a child or ill family member and … well … it's really not good. Many of us take on more responsibility as we progress through adulthood before enjoying a reduction in obligations as we near retirement. None of this is news to anyone who is a contributing member of society.

Yet despite the long list of responsibilities and expectations placed on me, I no longer feel a weight. Two or three years ago the rapid assumption of duties seemed a bit excessive. For so much of my time in Japan my core responsibilities were rather simple:

  • look after Nozomi's needs
  • pay the bills
  • pay the rent
  • ensure the government ID and supporting documentation is always valid
  • be productive at work and meet every deadline

After moving out of the classroom and into my current role at the day job, I then became responsible for servers, services, software, and systems. When the boy was born, I then became a father and quickly assumed the role. When we bought a house I became an immigrant home-owner and had to first manage the myriad of legal hurdles before taking on the day-to-day maintenance of a building and plot of land. The role at the day job has since expanded again, meaning I'm responsible for many of the same things as before, but for many, many more people across the face of the planet. Never in my life have I had so many expectations nor have the consequences of failure ever been higher.

Yet, despite all of this, I don't feel these responsibilities are "heavy". At one time I did, but the feeling has long since passed.

Mind you, I'll be the first to admit that I'm fortunate to have a great deal of support with every one of the obligations and duties. Reiko helps out a lot with the domestic items, and a handful of dedicated colleagues make the expectations from the day job easier to meet. Stressful days continue to exist. Impossible deadlines keep me awake some nights. Concerns about the health of some close family are constantly on my mind. But this is all taken in stride now. I can manage it. I can overcome the little issues that are sometimes irritants and sometimes roadblocks. Despite the sheer number of responsibilities on my plate, the vast majority of which are not listed, there is no weight on my shoulders.

Why not? Am I completely oblivious to the very real threats that could turn my current lot in life into something far worse than anything I've experienced thus far? This is certainly a possibility as we can't always know what we don't know, but this might not be the case.

There's always the possibility that I might lose my job, which would immediately impact the family's ability to afford anything. Reiko does work, but her hard-earned salary is not enough to cover our monthly operating costs. There's a chance someone in this house might become incredibly ill and require constant attention, possibly hospitalisation. A stupid mistake with a database at the day job could cost the company as little as 15 minutes of downtime1, which is measured in the thousands of dollars, or maybe tens of millions of dollars if student data was exposed to risk and the press caught wind of the situation. Any one of these could make like much more difficult, particularly if a family member is really sick.

Despite the serious ramifications from failure or fate, these situations do not even enter my equations for how much a responsibility weighs. Why worry about all the possible negative things all the time? It's enough to know that the possibility is there and have some basic plans in place to ensure at least some short term survival.

The more I think about how I perceive the burdens of responsibility, the more I think I'm feeling comfortable with these challenges because it's time to assume a bigger one. What it is exactly I haven't a clue but, from past experience, when I've become too comfortable with the day-to-day the mind will begin looking for something new. This could be joining a neighbourhood program. It could be taking on another role at the day job. Heck, it could even be trying to raise another child2. The hard part isn't finding some other challenge to take on; it's finding the right challenge to properly embrace.


  1. If we need to switch a hot-secondary system to a primary, this can be done in the space of a couple of minutes. That said, there is always some time spent on the first system to get it operational again. Fortunately this has never had to be done as a result of something I did.

  2. Given how much energy the boy demands from me, I don't know how I'd get by with another young child in the house. How did my parents manage to stay sane and get things done with five kids in the house?

Idle Hands

If it weren't for the storm barrelling down on Japan this week, the family and I would be resting at a hotel just outside of Tokyo DisneyLand right now. This was to be our first "real" vacation away from home since Reiko and I went to Kobe back in 20131. However, considering the intensity of this 19th typhoon of the year, it did not seem wise to risk getting stuck 400km from home with a toddler in tow. We still plan to make time and travel to the theme park this month to enjoy the sights and sounds of a Disney Hallowe'en, but only if the weather is a little more agreeable. Hopefully I can book the time off work without falling too far behind the myriad of tasks that need to be completed for the start of November.

台風19号

My grandmother used to say that idle hands were the Devil's playthings and often insisted that people be doing something rather than nothing2. She passed away when I was quite young, but this phrase has stuck with me as it has made very little sense over the years. Being bored does not necessitate an act of malevolence. Heck, my experience has generally been the opposite; when I'm bored, I get to work.

So it probably surprises exactly zero people that I've two of my three paid vacation days this week to solve some technical problems for the day job.

Was it the devil that made me fire up the necessary tools to diagnose the database performance issues? Nope. Was it the devil that compelled me to remain on "silent mode" with all but one colleague to ensure a minimum of distractions? Nope. Was it the devil that provided enough time in the afternoon and evening so that I could focus on the difficult task of sifting through millions of SQL operations to find the worst offending queries and clean them up like a man possessed?

Maybe.

There's no denying that I am not good at being bored. There is always more to do in a day than can be reasonably accomplished, which means there is generally a reason to get out of bed the next morning3. When the trip to Disney was cancelled, I had planned to use the time for some 10Centuries features, such as Sign in With Apple, restoring the landing and sign up pages, and optimising some of the syndication elements that have become sluggish as the database has grown. Some time was spent on the first item, but not a heck of a lot. When the emails started coming in from work from people saying the system was interfering with their ability to get work done, the focus had to shift.

This isn't a good thing, though. Time away from work should mean spending time away from work, no matter how much I might want to jump in to solve problems.

Tomorrow, after spending some time with the family and ensuring everything outside is ready for the impending weather, I'll get back to doing what I should be doing with 10Centuries, which is building the platform. There are a number of concepts that have been worked on since the start of summer and it would be nice to see them deployed before winter arrives. There's also a bunch of work I need to do on the iOS application in order to get it ready for submission to the AppStore in the next couple of months.

There is always a lot to do. Sometimes I wonder if my hands can ever be idle at all.


  1. We've had shorter holidays, but we haven't stayed anywhere overnight. Visiting the in-laws for New Year doesn't count as a holiday, either.

  2. The one exception to this rule was always invoked when her favourite soap opera was on. Every afternoon at 4:00pm, she would watch The Young and the Restless and everything would come to a standstill, including her hands, for the entire hour.

  3. The boy is pretty good at making just the right noises in the early morning to pierce the calm … and any eardrums in the vicinity. This isn't a great reason to get out of bed, but a natural alarm clock does make it a little bit easier.

Chaos on a Blank Page

When people are presented with a blank page and asked to write whatever they'd like to share there will be a small percentage capable of doing so almost instantly while the vast majority will struggle to get started. Our ability to be creative on demand is limited and people's general ability to face a blank page and turn it into something with structure and purpose is even more finite.

One of the ideas that I've tried to put to words is an evolving concept of chaos and order. A blank page is chaos. A page with content, no matter how trivial, has a degree of order. The way I approach a blank page for blogging is almost the same way I approach software development. We are presented with an unformed canvas that can be transformed in a near-infinite number of ways. How do we start? How do we structure? How do we know we've finished? The chaos that we see in the form of a blank page, be it physical or digital, can be seen as untapped potential.

This is how I look at it, anyway. Chaos is potential, while order is what we derived from that potential. A chaotic blog post might not ever see the light of day in its current form, but there's still the potential to refine the idea further, imbibing order on the work so that others might read and understand. A chaotic application might never compile, but there is still the potential to work out the issues and impose a minimal amount of order to see the code in action. This balance can be seen with just about everything and it's often up to us to create something good from the potential before us.

Putting this in a blog post, however, has proven to be quite difficult. The concepts can run quite deep, which would make for a rather long essay that could very well need a bit of research and references. I have no qualms with writing an article that hits five or six thousand words in length, but the piece has to be cohesive and coherent.

Perhaps it would be better to just keep it simple, then.

Chaos = Potential.
Order = Realisation1.

These four words do not do the concept justice, though. At some point I'll sketch out a mind map, draw from reference material, and compose an article that better articulates the notion in a manner befitting its meaning.


  1. The achievement of something desired or anticipated.

A For Better or For Worse Retrospective

Last month I went mostly cold turkey on reading websites that sell the news and instead decided to embark upon a re-reading of the entire 29-year run of For Better or For Worse, a comic strip that I've previously written about. Aside from a single week-long gap in the 80s where the source comics were lost in transit from Lynn Johnston's home studio to the publishing syndicate, people could look forward to a new strip every day. Because I was no longer dedicating any time to reading world or tech news, it was possible to read roughly a full year of comics every day. Oddly enough, after a full month of reading about the highs and lows of the characters in this very Canadian story, I feel older.

For Better or For Worse

Feeling older is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. When the characters in a story age almost 30 years, it's hard not to get carried away in the story. Michael, the eldest son, went from kindergarten all the way through university to barely making ends meet in journalism to marriage to parenthood to buying the family house from his parents. Elizabeth, too, went from being the same age as my son to going through school to working as a teacher in northern Ontario to finally getting married to her first crush1 April's entire life from the moment Elly finds out she's pregnant up until the final year of high school is played out. We see when Farley the dog jumps into a raging river to save April from drowning at the expense of his own life. We see how the family adapts as family members pass away or move to distant places. We witness some of the challenges that come when supporting an elderly person who has suffered multiple strokes and heart attacks. While the characters never once had to deal with poverty, their lives were about as human as one can get in a daily comic strip. Life is what it is because of the challenges we're forced to confront. For Better or For Worse never shied away from this truth.

When I read these stories as a child, I could relate to Michael and Elizabeth because we were roughly the same age. The angst, frustration, and joys of being a Canadian teen in the 90s seemed universal because what I felt at home might very well appear in the paper in comic form. This time I related more to Elly and John, the parents, as they expressed many of the same concerns I've dealt with while adjusting to the responsibilities that come with parenthood and owning a house, not to mention the adjustments we need to make as we transition from our 30s to 40s and beyond. It's interesting how reading fictional characters struggling with various aspects of ageing or the challenges of effective discipline can be cathartic. Not only am I not alone in being fine with going grey but disappointed in the flab around my gut, but it's normal to feel this way.

As silly as it may seem, the comic helped me feel better about growing old.

Over the last month I've been fortunate enough to enjoy just over 10,000 of these wonderful bite-sized stories. They've reminded me of my youth. They've reminded me of my own family stories that involve sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and parents. They've reminded me of life before the rapid adoption of powerful, portable, always-connected mobile devices. And while it's highly unlikely we'll see any new comics from Lynn Johnston anytime soon, this classic series will have a place in my heart right next to Calvin & Hobbes.


  1. The comic ends with Elizabeth's wedding. It was a good place to finish, as April was a bit too young to wait for. If Lynn Johnston had waited until April was in university so that John and Elly had an empty nest, then it might have been "too long".

A Series of Tiny Problems

The first computer program I ever shared with friends at high school was a rudimentary file tester called "HashDash". This was back in the mid-90s when home computers were insanely expensive, beige, ran DOS version 5 or 6, and often had their autoexec.bat file automatically launch Windows 3.1 after completing the boot cycle. The Internet was just starting out and companies like Prodigy and America Online mailed out millions upon millions of floppy disks or CDs in an effort to get people to sign up to their portal services. A number of viruses had gone around the school, wiping out homework and generally causing a panic, and both McAfee and Norton AntiVirus had been around for a couple of years, but the products were generally priced higher than most people were willing to pay. Being an egotistical geek, I figured that I could make something that might not classify as an anti-virus but would let people know when an application or system file had been modified.

The program was written in Turbo Pascal and was incredibly simple. A person would copy the file to their computer, add a line to autoexec.bat, and forget about it. Every time the computer was booted, which was generally every day in the 90s, the system would spend a couple of minutes verifying files.

The first time HashDash would run, it would scan every file on the computer, work out a hash1, and record the 32-character string to a file. Every subsequent boot would load the database of hashes and compare the files on the hard drive against those strings. Anything that appeared different would appear on the screen in a list and people could choose what to do next; ignore, update the hash, or delete the file and overwrite it with zeroes.

The program proved quite popular at school and it wound up being shared from floppy-to-floppy as software generally was at the time. I don't know if it caught any changed files or not, but this didn't stop people from coming up to me and asking how I could learn to build a piece of software that could do "something so amazing".

The fact of the matter is simple: HashDash wasn't amazing. It was just a simple piece of code that did math on computers that were so resource constrained that a mis-typed while statement could crash the whole system.

As a 15 year old, these comments were like music to my ears. Time went on, though, and I eventually grew tired of being "the computer guy" that everyone ran to when they had a question. I figured that the best way to have people leave me alone would be to follow the advice of an old proverb: Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. I needed to encourage people to learn about their computers, think things through, and try to solve their own technology problems before calling for help.

Unfortunately, this proved to be a lot harder than anticipated.

For a long time I've tried to tell people that "Computers are just calculators. If you like math, you can figure out anything with a computer." While this is certainly true to a degree, the explanation puts up a rather high barrier right from the beginning. For me, math is as important a part of my life as music and writing. I love numbers and creating the equations that form algorithms that solve complex problems. Many people, however, do not. By saying "If you like math …" I am putting a pretty large barrier in front of people who just want their piece of technology to perform a given activity. What I should be telling people is that "A computer — and software in particular — is just like a game of sudoku."

Sudoku is a series of small problems that, when solved one by one, untangle a grand solution. The work that many of us do on a computer is much the same. We have a thousand little problems to work out and, when everything is done, we can sit back and appreciate for a moment that something intrinsically complex now exists. We have extracted from the chaos a tiny glimmer of order.

Perhaps by saying something like this, more people will be encouraged to better understand the technologies that so many of us have started to take for granted.


  1. A hash is a verification mechanism. It's determined with an algorithm that creates a digest of characters that — ideally — uniquely identifies a file. This hash can then be compared to see if the contents of the file have changed in any way.

Queues

We spend an incredible amount of our life waiting in queues. Earlier today an hour of my morning was invested warming a bench at a nearby barber shop while a dozen people ahead of me had their hair cut. Given my propensity to people watch, it’s probably no surprise that this was another opportunity to compare and contrast queues today to those from a decade ago. Ten years ago I was generally the only person in the shop looking at a palm-sized screen of text1. Before the rise of the smart phone people generally used their flip phones for entertainment or, depending on their age, carried a paperback novel for just such an occasion. Today it was no surprise at all that everyone in the queue was looking at their phones, coming up for air every so often as we shuffled along the queuing bench that ran along the perimeter of the shop.

This is an interesting time as we are clearly transitioning from being good at being bored to being incredibly bad at it. Many people no longer find it necessary to keep themselves company while waiting their turn. Instead the default action has become to reach for the phone (or tablet) for that next hit of serotonin. I’m not going to argue that this change is positive or negative, as I’m not a scientist who has studied the phenomenon. What I can argue, though, is that this is going to be an interesting decade up ahead as we entrench ourselves online even more.

What technologies will we take for granted in 2029? How will we pass the time? Will we forget how to be bored? I don’t know, but I do like thinking about it.


  1. This would mean either the HP iPaq 2210 I brought over from Canada or the HP iPaq 210 Enterprise that replaced it.

The Quiet Organs

This morning I had an appointment with the family doctor to discuss the results from my most recent health check and perform some follow-up tests. The health check is done at what can only be described as a medical processing factory in Nagoya. People go in, change into the issued garb, then consign themselves to being poked and prodded by as many as 18 different doctors over the next hour or two. When I first took one of these examinations back in 2008 I was impressed by the efficiency while also struggling to keep up with all the directions1. Now it's just "one of those things" that takes up half a day in the summertime. This year's health check summary outlined some potential issues with my kidneys and highlighted a lower than average white blood cell count.

At the family clinic, the nurses had me to all of the expected tests. Blood was extracted, urine was deposited into a cup, weight and blood pressure were measured. I won't hear the results from the first two tests, but the blood pressure result was apparently low enough to warrant the nurse checking not once, not twice, but thrice. Generally it hovers around 100/60. Today the reading was 87/44. I wonder if this explains the occasional bouts of light-headedness when standing up.

After all of this, I had the opportunity to speak to the doctor and answer a bunch of questions related to my recent health and diet. Once satisfied, he pulled out a booklet and showed me what the F grade on the medical checkup means. He pointed to a chart that consisted of ages along the top and scores along the left. "Perfectly healthy" results had a background of white, while early warning results were in blue. As the scores and ages progressed the backgrounds became yellow and red, which is generally the point where the kidneys have completely failed and regular dialysis treatments are required. The score from my annual health check put me in the first blue square for people 40 years of age. If I were 39 then the result would have had a white background.

Perhaps I scoff a bit too much at all the alarmist messages that bombard us on a daily basis, but having a test result of F for something that just barely measures as something to pay attention to is a bit absurd.

Either way, I've asked to have a bit more testing done on the kidneys just to make sure there is no sign of stones or other issues. I'll head to the nearby regional hospital on the 15th to undergo an ultrasound to check the overall condition of both kidneys as well as my liver; the three organs that are generally pretty quiet until they're not, and then it's too late.

From what the doctor said today, the test results will probably show things we already know:

  • I'm getting older
  • there are some small stones that are being passed, which is resulting in some blood
  • the low white blood cell count is due to exhaustion more than anything else

  1. My Japanese was painfully insufficient back then. It's not great now, either, but I can generally communicate to get things done. Just don't ask me to read a news article with a deadline, because I'll often need some extra time to extract meaning from what's written.

Slog

Another workday.

The calendar is empty.

The inbox is full.

G3

One of the few "perks" of being employed full-time in Japan is the legal requirement for an annual health check. People get to visit a designated medical clinic to get poked, proded, and quantified in as short a period of time as possible. This year was my 11th exam and there were a number of positive results that show I've been able to lose a bunch of weight and keep it off, which has helped in other areas. Despite the relative good health, though, there were two areas that were highlighted for follow-up, with one being marked "urgent": a low white-blood cell count, and a possible renal condition.

The white blood cell count has consistently deteriorated by about 15% every year since I left the classroom and the most recent test shows the numbers to be about half of what they were in 2014. Fortunately there are a number of foods that a person can consume in an effort to raise the number, such as yogurt, ginger, spinach, garlic, and broccoli — all the things that I could enjoy as a meal in an of itself. Despite the low number, I'm still within the thin band defined as "marginally safe", meaning there is time to do something in a natural manner. The renal condition, however, is a bit different.

Last year's medical checkup showed some problems with my urine and there was a recommendation to have it checked again within six months. Between 2012 and 2015 the uricological tests all came back with scores of A+ or A, meaning there was nothing to worry about. In 2016 it was a C. Last year it was a D. This year the result is classified as an F. Being someone who consistently puts other things ahead of personal medical matters, I ignored the suggestion to get a second opinion. This year's F is forcing my hand to go and get checked out. What's interesting is that the medical summary for this year contains more specific information explaining why I scored an F with the urine test: CKD Stage G3.

Not knowing what G3 means in plain English, I went and looked it up:

Patients with CKD stage G3 have impaired kidney function. Only a minority of patients with CKD stage G3 go on to develop more serious kidney disease. Cardiovascular disease, the umbrella term for diseases of the heart and circulation (e.g. heart attacks and strokes), is more common in patients with CKD. It is important to try and identify which patients may go on to develop more serious kidney damage and to try and reduce the chances of patients developing cardiovascular disease.

So I have impaired kidney function and a very slim chance that it'll continue to develop into something that might result in an earlier death. Considering how quickly the tests went from A to C to D to F, though, I wonder if this is a sign of something a little more serious than the medical website outlines. Some additional documentation — supplied only in Japanese — explains that the tests showed my kidneys operating at about 50% of what they should be given my age and general health.

Tomorrow I'll be setting up an appointment with the family doctor to have some more tests done on my blood and urine. If he agrees with the assessment that something needs to be examined more closely, then he'll provide the necessary referral to the regional hospital down the road that can diagnose the issues with greater accuracy. This F grade will likely amount to some pills and maybe a slight adjustment in the diet, which will be fine so long as I'm not asked to reduce my coffee intake.