2018 Retrospective

Hear ye, hear ye! 🔔 The end of the year is nigh! ‘Tis time to reflect on the year that was.

As usual, a lot happened. Maybe not all of it was earth-shattering news, but everyone is continuing to grow and do new things.

Miranda turned 14 (it’s always weird to reference that, one day before her next birthday every year) and she’s well into teenager hood now. Her eyes finally gave in to genetics and she has glasses now. She also experimented with a couple of new haircuts: short and shorter. Her biggest event of the year was her trip to Montréal and Québec this spring. When the weather and traffic didn’t cooperate, she got a couple of extra days. She made a post about the whole trip. She also showed an interest in role-playing-type games (she’s always liked Baldur’s Gate/Champions of Norrath and the Lord of the Rings). If we can find the time, she’s a willing participant in the Order of the Stick. Her braces came off late in the year. Yay!

Ian kept a low profile early in the year. He was in posts about family events like skiing at Nakiska and our West Edmonton Mall trip, but it wasn’t until summer came that there were posts about a field trip to Heritage Park and his new road bicycle riding exploits. He’s growing, and was tall enough to go on some new rides at Calaway Park this year. He continued to be interested in programming, but still has more enthusiasm than focus. Another long-term project was reading the Wheel of Time together. He turned 11 in July, and had a sleepover with Ben, a family birthday party and a party at Southland Leisure Centre. He even posted to this site a couple of times, including a loving look at the iPhone XR.

Tammy was quiet this year. As always a part of everything, but the list of solo stories was short. There were her new Sam Sparks glasses, and her 46th birthday. Her new job got exciting when there was a bomb threat at the college. She’s driving her Golf a lot more, and some wear and tear can be more stress-causing than others. She got a chance to meet up with some of her former students from Switzerland this year, and she got back on the horse and donated blood as well. Her biggest story was having a business trip to Edmonton! She got to partake in a multi-day ESL conference. The rest of the family survived her absence, if barely. 😁

Most of the stories about me or the things I did seemed to be about information technology, cycling or home improvement. I suppose that’s not too surprising. I had four rounds of programming news, where I improved the FFF mobile app, did a proof of concept of aligning FFF records with bank records in Python, then developing a Mac app and then enhancing it. I had issues ordering new decals for my Roubaix, but managed to get them and apply them in the end. Tammy and I made a handful of lunch dates at the Last Straw Pub, but the only date night was going to see MAMIL in Eau Claire. I might need to work on my relationship skills. 🤔 I turned 45, which seems like a lot. The most notable thing that happened this year was getting to see a Stampeders game from the ENMAX private box. That was quite the experience.

Our cat Squeak celebrated her 20th birthday this year, making her our longest-lived pet ever. Even Dad’s visit at Christmas couldn’t do her in. Meanwhile, Stephanie “I’m not getting any more pets” has added a second cat to her family: Willow.

The house almost seems like one of the family in these retrospectives: it’s changinghaving problems and getting smarter all the time. Sometimes we have to change it when we change as a family, like finding a place to put all the bikes in the winter. Or it can just be tidying it up. Or it can be the geography we live in, with a new rec centre opening or a brush fire that was too close for comfort. No matter what, it’s our home and has been for over five years now. The occasion of our fifth anniversary spurred on a great family photo, if not the official one for 2018.

I always like to highlight the arts and music in these retrospectives, and in the first half of the year, it was Stephanie and her kids who were the best, with their painting nights. Keep it up! The kids had their piano recital, which might be Miranda’s last as she stopped piano lessons. She still plays but wasn’t interested in lessons this fall. Ian had a couple of successful tries at playing the drums. Miranda continues to do a million and one craft projects, much more than she posts about here. And as usual, November was National Novel Writing Month. It was the 11th year for Tammy and I, and both Miranda and Ian took part. We were successful by all measures. I didn’t finish my novel, but I am excited to keep working on it.

We had a couple of visitors: our friend Cindy came to Calgary to visit her family and attend the Comic Expo, and we got a chance to have dinner with her, and Dad came twice: once in July and once again at Christmas. By coming in July, he got to see and do stuff that doesn’t work at Thanksgiving or Christmas. I had only a handful of trips in the first half of the year to Hamilton, Palm Springs and Tech Trek, but then rounded out the year with Winnipeg (a first for me!), Toronto, Edmonton and Regina. We had our annual pilgrimage to the coast in August. Before we left, the weather in Calgary was extreme, with a new record high of 36 degrees set, and the smoke from BC wildfires choking off outdoor activities. It seemed that we drove through the smoke to blue skies, and the clear air persisted long enough for everyone to ride in the Tour de Victoria, then the smoke closed in on Victoria, too. We tried some different indoorish activities, but the smoke didn’t let up until we went back home again.

It was a good year for us. Here’s hoping for more good stuff to come in 2019! Happy New Year!


2018 Cycling Roundup

Don’t worry, the general 2018 Retrospective is coming tomorrow. Today, I met my distance goal for cycling: 9,000 km for the year. With that, I thought it was a good opportunity to look back at the cycling year.

As I mentioned, I met my goal for the year, but my initial target was 8,000 km. In October, it was clear that I was going to pass that, so I upped my sights.

I don’t know what 2019 will bring, but back in 2014 I wondered how I would ever top 3,000 km.

But enough about me. If 2018’s cycling story was about anything, it was about the rest of the family. Both Miranda and Tammy joined the Bow Cyclist Club, and Ian was one of my biggest riding partners.

It all started in January, when I enrolled Miranda and myself in the Bow Cycle Service School. Miranda had “inherited” Tammy’s bike the previous year, but it was her opportunity to tear it apart and make it her own. I took my Giant commuter and replaced its drivetrain with a 1x system, which was my major cycling investment of the year.

The spring took its own sweet time coming, so while there were a few rides in March and April, nothing really started happening with regularity until May. Then the 2018 pattern established itself: I commuted pretty regularly, rode on Wednesdays and Sundays with the BCC (and Miranda would join on Sundays), Tammy would ride the Tuesday morning ladies’ ride, Tammy and Miranda would ride the Thursday night ladies’ ride with the BCC, while Ian and I would go for a spin along the pathways.

I had two early season “special” rides, both in June: the MEC Century Ride and the Gran Fondo Badlands. Keith came out to stay with us to take part. The weather cooperated, even if the integrity of our tires did not.

Ian turned eleven this year, and while his legs might not be long, he was super enthusiastic about riding his new road bike this year. I got the bike for $275 from Tara, whose son had outgrown it. Ian’s first attempts at riding it were comically tentative, but soon he was pushing himself to try new things, including riding up Canada Olympic Park and registering for the Tour de Victoria. That forced an additional bike rack for the Tiguan, as the Biickerts were all represented in the Tour de Victoria this year. That was the highlight of the year.

The weather didn’t cooperate very well this year. Calgary was choked with smoke through August from the BC wildfires, Victoria followed suit while we were there (thankfully not on the Tour day). Then winter arrived early. There were some further BCC rides in October, but only for the hardcore. For Tammy and Miranda, the season was over when we got back to Calgary from Victoria.

Faced with the prospect of a long, long winter, I opted for variety in the form of a set of cycling rollers. Technically an early Christmas present, it has already been a welcome change from Zwifting every day.

Stepping back and looking at the year again, it was huge steps forward for Tammy and Ian. Tammy will end the year with more than 4,300 km. That’s huge! Ian stepped up and rode lots and with enthusiasm. For myself, I can’t help but think that it was a bit of a step backwards. I know I didn’t reach the levels of fitness in the summer that I did in 2017. I only rode three centuries, instead of six or seven in 2017, depending on how you count them. I was very regular and my totals show it. And there is something very rewarding seeing the others reach new heights.

But looking ahead to 2019, I have already agreed with the BCC that I would shift to leading the Saturday ride instead of the Sunday ride. That will hammer me into shape: 90 hard km instead of 45 easy ones. I also am pondering entering the Tour de Bowness next August and there is something new called the Alberta Gran Fondo Series for 2019. Who knows, I might get back to 2017 levels next year.

Merry Christmas and Happy (Quiet) Boxing Day

The 25th went by in a blur this year. With Dad here, a thousand tech gifts to set up, and Sepideh, Alec and Ilia coming over, it was a busy day.

Tree and gifts all ready

The kids were up fairly early. First it was Miranda around 6, and then Ian around 6:30. The big winner was Squeak, who got two breakfasts out of it. Everybody opened stockings, then breakfast and cards, and then finally opening presents.

Tammy did a good job of passing out parcels this year. There wasn’t the usual frenzy of paper flying everywhere. I actually managed to see most of the presents being opened.

Directing present traffic

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Dad’s Here, And We’re Ready For Christmas

I’ve had a time of it the last few days. On Thursday, I had my last day of work and I was feeling great. Friday morning I woke up and said “Oh, no.” I felt some sort of illness coming on. Thankfully, it passed in less than 24 hours. Some sort of virus that got past the lines of defence and then was crushed by my immune system. But then the next morning, I was helping to clean the kitchen, bent over and my lower back seized up. I hit the floor and needed help to get up and over to the couch. The final insult is the burn I have on my back now: I think I was careless with the electric heating pad and it scorched me. 😖

But enough of that: Dad flew in yesterday afternoon. We all went to the airport and picked him up. We stopped by Northland Mall to visit Purdy’s and Walmart, and then ordered some Chinese food for supper. It was going to be meatloaf, but Dad hadn’t had lunch, so we expedited supper. Meatloaf is for tonight’s supper. We watched Arthur Christmas, and that was the end of day 1. Today, we went for a bit of a walk in the nippy temperatures. Dad’s not used to the dry cold, and his cheeks got nice and rosy.

Miranda, Dad and Ian with the Rocky Mountains in the back

Tammy was baking up a storm today, but made some time to play a couple of games with everybody. Here we are playing Doctor Dreadful Scabs & Guts, which was followed by a game of Anomia.

Ian won the game!

Dad’s having a bit of a rest on the couch now. I think we tired him out.

If all goes well, we should watch Scrooge tonight. We’ve watched a lot of Christmas movies this year. It was sort of a dare on Tammy’s part to watch as many as possible, including Christmas rom-coms that we might have otherwise sneered at. We watched:

  1. Just Friends
  2. A Christmas Prince
  3. The Family Man
  4. The Princess Switch
  5. A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding
  6. The Christmas Chronicles
  7. Four Christmases
  8. Christmas Wedding Planner
  9. Christmas Inheritance
  10. It’s a Wonderful Life – Cancelled due to illness and Tammy’s blood donation
  11. Elf
  12. Arthur Christmas

It’s been fun.

Merry Christmas, everyone. 🎄

Blood Donor Writing

This eve I went and donated blood for the first since 2010. I was a regular donor in Prince George (I felt it was my civic responsibility to do so since I have a rare blood type), but became less of one when we moved back to the Island. The clinics weren’t as convenient there. I finally got the lead out a month ago and searched for a local clinic. It turned out there was one at the new YMCA up the hill in Rocky Ridge. We all piled in the car and drove up. I didn’t feel confident in driving home. Even though I’d made an appointment for 7.10 I still got a number and waited over an hour to get siphoned. I’m not sure what the point of making an appointment was because it didn’t mean you got in at the specified time. So after waiting for an hour Simon and Ian went home. (Simon’s not feeling up to snuff.) Miranda stayed to watch. She can start donating when she’s 17. It took just over 7 minutes to fill the bag and then we were off to the refreshments. Simon came and got us and now we’re back home. My next donation will be in March.

Fat Biking

That is not a description of the rider. It’s the tires! 🤪

Today, I borrowed a bike from Bow Cycle and met up with a dozen or so club members to ride up the Powderface Trail, west of Bragg Creek. I was more than a little sceptical. After last year’s ride which was more ice than snow, I was worried that this was going to be an hour and a half of butt-clenching.

It turned out pretty good. The conditions were good, and the temperature was just below freezing.

At the trail head

It was a heck of a climb. Only about six kilometres in, but half a kilometre up.

Powderface Trail map and elevation

There was more than a little bike pushing going on. I know my heart rate spiked over 180 bpm on the climb up.

Pushing up one of the shorter climbs

It was fun, but exhausting. There’s gotta be easier ways to move around in snow than this.  I think fat bikes are cool, but I don’t want to buy one. I’d rather rent one every once in a while. The studded tires alone cost $700.

Do you hear an Echo?

No, that isn’t some snarky comment about how little I’ve been posting around here: I’m talking about the Amazon Echo.

Echo Dot 3rd Generation

In case you aren’t aware, there has been a bit of a technology war going on, with Amazon, Apple and Google all vying for the lead in the “smart speaker” market. Each has a voice assistant (Alexa, Siri and “Google Assistant”, respectively) and each company sells products that you put around your house. They can answer questions, play music, radio and podcasts, interact with smart home systems, play games, act as an intercom, and a lot of other things. I have been very interested in these, but hadn’t tried them until this year. The cheapest one is the Echo Dot, which normally costs $70 Canadian, and prices climb from there. I was leaning towards the Apple HomePod for a long time as it was reviewed as having the best sound quality, but it also costs $449. I was never interested in the Google Home just due to my general disinterest in Google products. I am a regular customer of both Apple and Amazon. Amazon’s strategy is to price these low, and get them in as many rooms as possible. Apple fought this trend for a while, thinking that people always had their phones with them anyways.

The way these things work is that they are listening for a “wake word”. For the Apple HomePod, it’s “Hey, Siri”, and for the Echo it can be set to: “Alexa”, “Echo”, “Amazon” or “Computer”. Once you’ve got the speaker’s attention, you can speak to it. What they understand is somewhat different across vendors. If you’ve used “Hey, Siri” on your iPhone, you know what voice activated computing is like. Generally speaking: Alexa is simplest but once you know how to ask for something it is very predictable. Siri understands the most complex language interactions but is somewhat erratic. There just is something weird and magical about being able to stop and just speak aloud and having your house understand you. It’s very reminiscent of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In the summer, Amazon has a sale called Amazon Prime Day, and when that came around this past summer, the 2nd generation Echo Dot went on sale for $35. I figured for that little amount, we could try it out. It arrived, and I set it up in our living room, which is adjacent to the kitchen and dining room. You could talk to the Echo from most places on the main floor, but not from upstairs or downstairs. Interest was there at first, but Tammy and the kids almost stopped using it entirely within a week or so. Tammy claims she just never thought of it (especially once I moved it to the piano: out of sight, out of mind) and for some reason the kids just didn’t care. I was the biggest user, but even so it was very limited.

As a person who has worked professionally with computer users and understanding what they want and need, I was very interested in why there was little or no uptake. My suspicions focused on two areas specifically:

  • Since the Echo was only in one location, it was not available in most of the house, including the major traffic areas of bedrooms and bonus room. Nobody built any habits around asking for information or getting Alexa to do something.
  • The 2nd generation Echo Dot has sound quality about equal to a cheap clock radio. You can ask it to play music, but it’s not a great experience. It’s good for voice interactions and that’s it.

The first point is solvable with more devices, and the second pointed towards higher-end devices that cost significantly more. I was wondering if there was a next step in this experiment. I didn’t want to spend a lot to prove my point. Then three things happened:

  1. Tammy started discussing our home security with me. It has been good for five years, but it’s not cutting-edge and needs updating. There are a lot of DIY solutions like Ring Alarm now, and that got me researching home automation and security stuff.
  2. Apple announced that Apple Music will be available on Alexa-enabled devices like the Echo. That immediately changed my thoughts on music and the Echo, because Amazon Music is pretty weak by comparison.
  3. The 3rd generation Echo Dot was released for the same price as the old one. It had significantly improved sound quality and volume.

Black Friday came along, and the Echos were on sale again. With credit card points, I ordered two more Dots (3rd generation) and an Echo Plus for future home automation control (more on that sometime later). And then when Tammy was shopping at Superstore, she spent over $250 and the free reward was… an Echo Dot.

I set the new “Superstore” Dot up and the difference was incredible. The sound quality made music listening pleasant. I moved the 2nd generation Dot upstairs and having a smart speaker in two locations changed the game. Everyone started using them more. So much so that despite my best intentions to make the other Echos I’d ordered something to put under the Christmas tree, I unboxed one of the Dots and set it up in the bedroom. When Christmas comes, we will have five smart speakers all around the house. You will be able to activate it wherever you are. All for practically no cost: $35 and some credit card points.

The experiment continues…

Creating Christmas

Been battling various colds through the entire family and bad weather but finally we have a weekend where the stars aligned and we were able to put up some cheer! Zach was a big help this year being up on the ladder.

This year we have an imp of a cat that I was seriously questioning how to protect the tree…

So we anchored it to the ceiling and did soft ornaments this year, aka teddy bear tree! Turned out pretty good actually 🙂

I got the kids Lego advent calendars this year. Let the building begin!

Christmas Party 2018

Last night was the Esri Christmas party here in Calgary. I was lucky to be back from Regina the night before, but it did make for a hectic Friday, trying to get everything done before it was time for Tammy and I to head out.

This year’s party was a Beary Merry Christmas at the Calgary Zoo, where there are a number of venues that host events. Ours was at the Safari Lodge, along with a lot of other tables of other organizations having their own parties. We got to wander and see the Zoo Lights on the way in, and afterwards.

Tammy and one of the row of dolphins

Looking across the bridge at the lights and Calgary

There was a good turnout for the party, and we got to see Sepideh, Steven and Krisztina.

Selfie time!

It was a good time, with good food. There was a duo playing music for some of the evening, and some canned music in between their sets. Later in the evening, Krisztina, Tammy, Hannah and Usama’s date (I didn’t catch her name) were up and having a good time rocking out on the dance floor. The food was good, with both turkey and beef on offer. No stuffing, though!

There was a photo booth, where we could have our photo taken, first nicely and then we had about three seconds to put on some silly props.

The stormtrooper attacks turkey-hat man!

I got a picture of myself with Brian, who is retiring. I’ve worked for him for 10 years and they’ve been a very good ten years.

Brian and I

We took the train there and back: the Zoo entrance is actually the same building as one of the C-Train stations. With the exception of having to change trains from the Red line to the Blue line downtown, it couldn’t have been easier. Miranda looked after Ian and the house was not burned down.

For the record, since moving to Calgary: