Dave Duncan

"Eat Well, Stay Fit, Die Anyway"

Archive for November, 2008

Black Friday: Blue Christmas in the Red?

Today is Black Friday in the US, which isn’t a title at all related to the current economic climate (as it’s now being called), but is instead the name attributed to the alleged busiest shopping day of the year.  The ‘black’ in the title is said to refer to the amount of money retailers make in that one day taking them out of the red (debt, in finance terms) and into the black, and moving into the time of year where they actually begin to turn a profit.

Since it’s the day after US Thanksgiving and many consumers have the day off, although it’s not a true holiday, they use that day to start their Christmas shopping and retailers usually have doorcrasher sales on some items to ensure that people are lined up at store-opening.

We don’t really have that culture here in Canada, so today is just a normal shopping day.  I haven’t even noticed any big sales notices, which means the big sales are more likely to come in the few weeks before Christmas.

It’ll be interesting to see how the doom and gloom over the North American (and worldwide) economies reflects in consumer spending this holiday season, and although I’m sure we’ll have to wait until the new year to see final results, no doubt the news will be chock full of anecdotal evidence for the weeks to come.

Personally, I haven’t really seen any negative change economically in my life.  Product prices have remained steady for my usual purchases and none of my regular stores have gone out of business, or appear to be heading that way.  If anything, lower gas prices have made our usual Toronto-Quebec travel a pill less difficult to swallow.  I can imagine that my year-end bonus might reflect some of the harsh economic realities, but I’ve never really counted on that money anyway.  I consider it ‘gravy’ on top of what I earn, even though it’s taxed.

That being said, thanks to the media, I now have an excuse to limit my Christmas spending so my family and friends can expect little more than dented cans of no-name brand tuna this year, and my lovely wife will get a homemade book of coupons that can be redeemed for household chores.

I’m kidding, of course.  I’ll go for brand name tuna.  Nothing but the best for my loved ones.

*NOTE: In an attempt to reduce the number of emails and comments I’ll no doubt receive saying I’m a total bastard, and to pre-empt any possible disharmony on the homefront, I’d like to formally declare that I’m being VERY sarcastic.  Please don’t let my sarcasm influence your gift-giving plans, especially as they regard me.  🙂

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For the Sake of Everyone Else, Go Home

My office suffers from a serious case of presenteeism, and it’s just a matter of time until it takes me down.  It’s a serious problem, and some minor passive-aggressive ‘joking’ on my part hasn’t changed anyone’s behaviour.  Sigh.

You’ve probably heard of absenteeism, the name given to the business principle where people being away from work (due to illness, injury or just playing hooky) leads to costs that can’t be recovered by productivity, therefore hurting the company’s bottom line.  Essentially, someone is being paid to work, so if they’re not working, the company loses twice.  They lose the income and they lose the work that person would have been doing if they were there.

Since the notion of absenteeism became popular in the workplace, businesses began focussing on ways to ensure productivity by reducing it.  This revealed a new issue, presenteeism.  This is where someone comes into work in spite of illness or injury and their presence in the office leads to reduced productivity.

For example, if one person comes in while they have the flu (claiming that they don’t actually feel that bad out of guilt for missing work, or actually believing that their office will fall apart if they’re not there), they can infect dozens of others who will either need to take time off to recover, or work at a diminished capacity in the office while continuing to infect even more people.

Despite my company’s very clear policy that those who are sick should stay home and get better, within my direct seating area are no fewer than 4 people who should be in bed as I type this.  They are sneezing, wheezing, coughing and oozing in a remarkably closed office area that seats 8.

For over a week now, I’ve been telling people to just go home, offering to cover their work and even making jokes that they’re going to kill us all just by being here, but to no avail.  Each morning, they’re in here spreading their viruses all over the place.  Their illnesses are being drawn out as a result of them not taking time to get better and they’re putting my health and work productivity at risk.

Do we need some sort of socially acceptable way to tell people to go home?  Perhaps a symbol that will shame them into doing the right thing, like a yellow feather in the days of the British Empire?  How about TTC fare and a packet of Neo Citran?  Your thoughts?


My Thoughts on Preventing Piracy on the High Seas

You’d have to be pretty reclusive when it comes to the news not to have heard the story of the supertanker filled with crude oil that was hijacked by Somali pirates a week or so ago.  This story is everywhere, and the BBC has even spoken to the captain, some of the crew and one of the captors by phone.  Times have changed since ‘Treasure Island’.

I’m glad to hear that the pirates see this purely as a business transaction, and it sounds as though the crew of the ship are being treated humanely.  I haven’t even heard any word of the pirates threatening the lives of the crew in order to increase the likliehood of the ransom being paid.  It’s a straight-up offer of cash for the boat.

A few surprising things have come out of this news story hitting the forefront.  One is that piracy and boat-napping is quite prevalent (and lucrative) off the coast of Africa, and the other is that few shipping companies consider arming their crews as a viable option.  I imagine that’s because the Somali pirates (based on archival footage) are armed to the frigging teeth!

I’m not a worldwide shipping magnate [Dave tips his hat to Paul Martin], but I am a big history buff, especially when it comes to war and specifically to the war in the North Atlantic during WWII.  With the wolfpacks of German submarines making easy prey of ships crossing the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Britain, the Mercant Marine instituted a convoy system, where ships travel in packs with an armed escort or two.  In this case, travelling in sheer numbers would theoretically dissuade potential pirates, and armed escort of some kind would minimize the risk that much more.

Alas, that’s small consolation for the families of the crew of the supertanker, but it might help future crewmen.  I guess I’m the only one learning from the past.

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Dave Gets a Grip. Five, in Fact. And One More, on Reality

I took a short trip to Canadian Tire last night to pick up some winter stuff for our house and car.  Normally, I like to wander around CT with a coffee and check out what’s on sale or generally available, with my to-do lists for home and cottage at the front of my mind, but last night was a trip with more time sensitivity, so I kept my aimless wandering to a minimum.

One great thing about CT is that even if you’re just going in for one thing, you can still peek in those bins they have in the aisles that are full of sale or clearance items and find a gem or two.  Paper towels are a constant, as are low-grade drill bits and screwdriver sets.  Bulk batteries show up from time to time and yard waste bags are stacked there in-season.

My list was pretty simple: salt (or any kind of walkway de-icer), winter windshield washer fluid, plastic window sealant (the plastic sheeting you heatseal over a window with a blowdryer) and a new gap for the bottom of our backdoor (the thing that goes on the bottom of the door to minimize draft).  I got all that, and a new outdoor lightbulb that doesn’t fit in the housing we have.  Stupid CFL bulbs.

On my way back to the register, I noticed a five-piece locking vice grip set for $14.  Three sizes of rounded tip and two of needlenosed pliers.  These things are indispenible in any home and can serve any of a thousand uses.  I vaugely recall one of the slum-houses I lived in during university having a pair permanently rusted to a copper waterpipe in the laundry room, no doubt put on to stop a leak.

After I got home, and was adding my new pliers to my ever expanding toolbox, I had one of those “I’m a grown up” moments that seem to happen all the more frequently now.  It’s weird that you can’t predict when some of these moments will happen, but I like them.

I also had an “I’m an old man” moment, when I fished my Canadian Tire money out of my pocket, headed to my desk drawer and fished out a raggedy old wallet that I keep specifically for storing Canadian Tire money… like an old man would.  That didn’t feel quite as good, but on the plus side I’ve got quite a bit of CT money saved up.  So there’s that.  Maybe it’s time to take a wander down the aisles and see what else I can pick up on the cheap.


The Food and Whine Expo

In case you haven’t seen the photos on Facebook yet, we attended the Food and Wine Expo on Saturday.  It seemed like a great deal as tickets were only $15 and it was downtown (so no travel costs to worry about) and Danielle’s sister and her friend were in town, so off we went.

One important detail that’s very poorly advertised is that you also need to buy ‘tasting tickets’, which are sold in sheets of $20 for $20 (that’s $1 per ticket, for the mathematically impaired).  You trade your tickets for variously (ambiguously so) sized glasses of wine, beer or spirits and for foodstuffs.  Needless to say, a few tickets rarely went very far (except with most brewers and the Yellow Tail booth) so it ended up being a rather expensive evening.

On the plus side, I tasted the most delicious wine I’ve ever had and it’s only about $55.  It’s an Australian red and it was dee-licious.  I guess if you’re really into food and wine, an expo like this is less about being a cheap date and more about trying a lot of things that you wouldn’t ordinarily have access to and all at once, for easy comparison.

Still, boo on the expo for not making the ‘rules’ clear and also for some terrible lines at the main gates.  Information on which line was which was hard to come by so you just kind of guessed you were in the line for the right kind of tickets and hoped for the best.

All in all, I had a great time, but that was due more to the wine and the great company than the actual expo.  Now that I know what I’m getting into, I’m not sure I’d go again, but I have a whole year to decide.

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Variations on a Theme, or on Themail

I logged into Gmail this morning to find that Google is now offering ‘Themes’, which are more commonly known as ‘skins’ (ah, the good old days when WinAmp was the only MP3 player the discerning compugeek installed).  Personally, I find many of the choices a little too heavy on pastels, and the themes that are designs a little on the lame side.

Alas, I am now running ‘Shiny’ and I can’t say I’m disappointed.  Hopefully, the next step is allowing you to generate your own theme somehow.  I’m also intrigued by ‘Tree’ as it looks like it changes to your environment.  When you install it, Gmail asks you your physical location.  Maybe I’ll try it for a few days to see what it does.

One thing I found strange is that none of the other personal Google apps (like Documents and Calendar) change to match your Gmail theme.  They don’t even have themes available, although I’d guess that they’ll be coming soon enough.

Have I ranted in here recently about how great the functionality in Gmail is?  I have 3 POP accounts for email from my various web sites (and more to come as SilentTalkie gets ramping up), which is complicated to say the least. I’m not often at one computer to check an email program and I don’t want to log in to a bunch of different webmail programs to access my emails.  That’s where my love for Gmail comes in.

All my email accounts come into my Gmail inbox and are labelled (using filters) to tell where they came from. When sending new emails, I can choose from a dropdown which email address I want the email to come from and when replying to an email, it automatically sets to reply from the address it was sent to, but I can change it easily from the same dropdown.

Add to all of that that emails are grouped into ‘conversations’ (which took me a while to get used to, but I love it now) and labels are easy to filter and generate and you’ll be hooked on Gmail too.  If you need an invite, let me know.

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When the Snow Flies, Common Sense Dies

Last night I had to take a simple trip to Gerrard Street East and Main Street.  I walked 0.6km from my house to Gerrard Street and waited for the 506 streetcar that would take me the 4.2km to my destination.  And I waited.  And I waited.

While I was waiting for 20 minutes, I saw a lot of crazy things.  Cars skidded through intersections at red lights after approaching the light at an alarming rate of speed, cyclists lost control in the snow and swerved or collapsed into traffic, and pedestrians with their hoods turned up against the snow stepped off curbs into traffic without looking up.  I can’t believe I didn’t witness anyone getting hurt or killed.

After 20 minutes, some passersby told those of us waiting that there was an accident at Gerrard and Broadview and the streetcars were stacked up 6 deep and nowhere close to moving.  My short 4.2km trip was in jeopardy.

Instead, I took the 72A Carlaw/Pape bus to Pape Station, then took the subway to Main Station and, as the 506 is also the streetcar that runs from Main to Gerrard, I got to walk the rest of the way in the snow.  My trip was now 5.5km and used three different modes of transportation (bus, subway and walking) and it took forever.

On my way home, things looked like they had improved, so I caught the 506 westbound at Main and Gerrard and was on my merry way, until our streetcar was involved in an accident with two cars at Ashdale Ave (at Coxwell).  Being too far to walk all the way home, I walked down to Queen and caught yet another streetcar.  This trip took two streetcars and a long walk and totalled 5.1km and a long bloody time.

In summary, when it snows, people do some ridiculous things.  Just take your sweet time and everyone will get where they’re going without any major accidents, injuries or deaths.  It’s going to be a looooong winter.

*I’d like to thank Google Maps for all their help in getting the distances accurate for this article.  For all your online map and distance-calculating needs, I recommend Google Maps.

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The Things We Do For Money

I have a job that occupies much of my time between the hours of 9am and 5pm, Monday through Friday.  Occaisionally, I find that I choose to work a little bit after five or I decide to come in for a few hours on a weekend in order to get ahead or get caught up.  Aside from that, my time is my own and the furthest thing from my mind is using that time to earn more money.

I feel as though I’ve earned my leisure time, as though it’s one of the fringe benefits of having a full-time job and that by working at a desk for 40 or so hours a week, I somehow deserve free evenings and weekends.  I’m starting to wonder, however, if that’s a very selfish thought.  Actually, I’m convinced it’s a selfish thought, but I’m wondering if it’s dangerous.

After having read a few books set in the early 20th century, the interwar period and then in the 50’s (from different books) and thinking back to what I know of the ways my grandparents and parents made their livings, I’m realizing now more than ever how new this idea of deserved leisure time is.

Granted, I can’t exactly run a hobby business at home raising bees to sell honey or chickens to sell eggs, and our three by eight foot garden won’t exactly turn out a profitable market garden (especially in late November), but surely I have talents and skills that I can put to effective use in a meaningful way that can help me contribute more to mine and Danielle’s financial goals (like a downpayment for a house, paying down our student debt and buying a Gretsch hollow-body electric guitar, most likely an Electromatic with a really nice green or red finish… where was I again?  Oh, yeah).

Creative writing isn’t exactly the most lucrative business, and freelance writing often requires more time than I can commit.  Sadly, my photography skills aren’t quite up to snuff, but I could probably take a class or two or at least buckle down and practice so I can figure out exactly what aperture setting and ISO every shot needs.  My personal schedule is too ridiculous to get a formalized second job, and I have no interest in becoming an Ebay seller.  So, what is there to do?

That’s a question I’m going to think about for a few months, during my many hours and weekends of well-earned leisure time.  I’ll probably spend much of it staring at my idle hands and thinking with my idle brain about how to put them to good use, and I’m certainly open to suggestions.

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