Life, the Universe and Everything

Last we saw our heroine, she had braved the wilds of Google and Amazon, wandered the badlands of “available to US residents only”, faced down the demons of bleeding-edge technology and come out victorious brandishing a View-Master VR viewer for Google Cardboard. (Read part one of this post here.)

I’d been reading about Coardboard and smartphone VR and was intrigued by it. The boys knew about VR technology like Oculus Rift mostly by watching PewDiePie and other YouTubers. And yet, none of us were prepared for how very cool the virtual reality experience would be. You’re talking about a girl who doesn’t even like 3-D movies!

Using the View-Master VR viewer couldn’t be more easy. Download the Google Cardboard app to your smartphone. Open the View-Master box. Use the app to take a photo of the QR code on the View-Master to tell the app which kind of viewer you are using. Slip the phone into the viewer and hold the viewer up to your face — and be prepared to be blown away. Seriously, it’s the coolest thing I’ve never imagined.

With the viewer, you can look up, down, behind you, to the side – it’s as if you’re standing inside a photo. And then you realize you can interact with the photo by moving around. On the “Urban Hike” part of the Google Cardboard app, you find yourself on a street in Paris near the Eiffel Tower, and as you turn your head, the scene shifts in real time based on your motion and you can click to follow a Google-Maps pointer to walk down the street.

We took turns passing it from person to person, marveling and gasping and laughing at each new reaction. The only thing more fun than your first experience with Google Cardboard is watching somebody else’s reaction to their first Google Cardboard experience. It dazzled my seven year old, my teens and my 71 year old father in equal measure.

ViewMaster with Google Cardboard

With just your Cardboard device and the basic app, you’re set up for hours of entertainment. As soon as you wrap your head around the technology, though, you start to wonder what else it can do. You want more more MOAR content.

And that’s when I fell down the rabbit hole. The two-and-a-half hours after I asked myself “hey, I wonder what else this thing can do?” were a mixed bag of delight and exasperation. Didn’t I hear something about all YouTube videos being enabled for Cardboard? After all, YouTube and Cardboard are both owned by Google. I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to figure out where exactly I was supposed to see the (clearly invisible) Google Cardboard icon on a video’s watch page before I figured out that I needed to be in the YouTube app, which I promptly downloaded. It took another exasperating interval before I realized that I’d only find it in the YouTube app for an Android (also parented by Google) device, not my iPhone. And when not even Tristan’s HTC Android phone would offer up the icon (not to mention the miserable learning curve of figuring out his user interface, such a child of Apple am I) we learned that his phone does not have a gyroscope and therefore does not work with Cardboard, and Google simplifies this by simply not making the app visible to him in the Google Play store. Many, many virtual heads were banged on virtual desks in this fruitless pursuit. We finally did get it working with Beloved’s Samsung S4 mini, but after the hours of frustration, I found the results rather lackluster. I’m sure with a newer Android phone with a bigger screen, the results will be breathtaking. I’ll wait for them to roll out an iOS version. There are a growing list of other apps that work on iOS, though – this list on Reddit seems robust.

So what exactly do you do with Google Cardboard on an iPhone, beyond playing with the Cardboard app contents? Given that this technology is only about a year old, there are already all sorts of cool things you can do. There are VR experiences, like attending a Paul McCartney concert or jumping out of a plane. You can play games, watch movies, ride virtual roller-coasters, or visit photospheres (360 degree panoramas) of exotic places — like the surface of Mars! With an Android phone, you can even take your own photospheres – I’m looking forward to that being available on iOS, too.

I must admit, I did get a little cranky about having to download a new app for each thing I wanted to try. I did download the Star Wars app (of course I did) and it has several Cardboard mini-adventures in it, but they are huge and space is already at a premium on my photo-stuffed iPhone. The app does have a nice section where you can manage the data being clogged up by the app, so I will keep this one. (Bonus Star Wars content: countdown to Episode VIII!)

My favourite discovery by far has been the Google Street View app. Enter any place on earth that Google has mapped with their street view camera and go for a virtual walk. With literally the whole world at their fingertips, my boys were most entertained by “walking” down our street from our house to our mailbox – go figure. Imagine, though – check out the street view of a hotel before you visit it, revisit your favourite vacation spots, see if the house where you grew up still looks the same.

I remember the very first time I used the Internet, probably back in 1992 or so, and I was paralyzed by the question of “where do you want to go?” When the answer is both anywhere and everywhere, it’s tough to narrow the answer down to just one place to go first! The funny thing is that I have the same feeling with Google Cardboard’s VR that I had the first time I surfed the Internet – that sense of wonder mixed with the feeling that you’re standing at the beginning of something so full of potential that you just can’t wrap your brain around it. Accessible VR for everyone? Mind = blown.

So, what do you think? Are you intrigued? Or am I preaching to the choir? Have you already taken a Cardboard viewer for a spin? Feel free to share any great experiences or apps you’ve found. (And if you’re interested in getting the View-Master VR viewer, they’re starting to roll them out in Canada. I found them online at Best Buy and Toys R Us for less than $30.)

If you do pick one up, or have a different Cardboard viewer, I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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Through October and November this year, I became increasingly intrigued by Google’s efforts to make virtual reality (VR) accessible to the masses through its Google Cardboard device. “Experience virtual reality in a simple, fun, and inexpensive way with Google Cardboard.” My curiousity was originally piqued by the ways we might harness the nascent technology in the work I do for Agriculture Canada in social media, but the more I read, the more fascinated I became with the idea of VR for anyone.

I understood the concept loosely. Assemble the viewer by folding up pre-cut cardboard and attaching a few lenses and widgets, download an app and insert your smartphone into the device. Use the viewer to experience immersive 3-D “virtual reality” on your smartphone. Pretty cool!

For a couple of weeks, I poked around various sites considering my options to acquire a cardboard viewer. They’re so inexpensive to manufacture that all home subscribers to the New York Times got one with their newspaper in early November. If you’re a US resident, you can buy one for less than $20, but they’re tougher to find from Canadian retailers, and when you do find them, of course they are more expensive. I was temporarily seduced by the idea of making one with the boys: “To build your own viewer all you need are a few everyday items you can find in your garage, online, or at your local hardware store: cardboard, lenses, magnets, velcro and a rubber band.”

Google cardboard

Hey, that doesn’t look so bad, right? I could totally do that. Ha! All my delusions of craftiness came to a crashing halt when I opened this, one of seven pages of design schema in the DIY download:

Google cardboard schema

Right. That’s absolutely not going to happen. With middle age comes the grace of acknowledging one’s own limitations, and one look at the fiddly details made it crystal clear that Google Cardboard as a DIY project could only end in misery.

So, with my options reduced to acquiring rather than making a viewer, I poked around various sites trying to decide whether I was invested enough in the concept to fork over upwards of $50 for a cardboard viewer and grumbling about how so many others seemed to be able to get one for free. Cost aside, choosing an appropriate viewer is incredibly intimidating if you only have the vaguest understanding of the technology. There’s a V1 from 2014 and a V2 from mid-2015. Some have NFC chips, some do not. Google endorses a handful of viewers, but most of the ones I clicked on started at the $25 US range, with an additional $5 to $10 for shipping and the dreadful exchange rate, pushing it outside of how far I was willing to go just to satisfy my own curiousity.

My head nearly exploded in mid-December when the Google store offered FREE Star Wars: The Force Awakens viewers – to US residents only. The rather robotic Google Store support person I harangued via help chat was cheerfully immune to my pleas and offers to pay for shipping. “Do not worry, Miss, there will be many enticing and exciting options available to Canadians in the very near future!”

Discouraged but stubborn, I was surfing cardboard-related reviews to parse what I could get for what price when something tweaked my attention. Wait, what? A View-Master cardboard viewer? You mean, like a Fisher-Price View-Master? The one every kid of my generation and most kids since played with? THAT View-Master?

20110318-DSC_0249

Turns out the View-Master got all fancy and 21st century when I wasn’t looking! Check out the 2015 View-Master VR, redesigned to work as a Google Cardboard viewer:

Mattel View-Master VR viewer

How cool is that? Intrigued, I did a little research and found they were very highly recommended as an inexpensive but sturdy Cardboard viewer fully endorsed by Google, but could not find them for sale in Canada anywhere near the $20 price range they were selling for on Amazon.com. I reached out to my old contacts at Mattel, where they are just getting ready to widely distribute the View-Master VR viewer to Canadian stores and long story short, one arrived on the porch a scant 24 hours later, just in time to be put directly under the tree for Christmas.

You’ll have to check out part two in this two-part series to find out how we liked the Google Cardboard experience with our new View-Master VR viewer but here’s a hint: it was worth every arduous minute of research, contemplation and dithering, and was easily the most intriguing gift under the tree this year!


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I have lost track of the number of times I’ve recycled this post, but it somehow just doesn’t feel like Christmas until I’ve shared it again. Besides, with a new job and a new circle of friends, there’s a whole new audience to edumacate about this most important Christmas factoid. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the annual reindeer rant, because especially at Christmas, traditions matter. Also? Because Donder.

Reindeer Games: Team Donder

“You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen;
Comet and Cupid and DONDER and Blitzen…”

You did know that Santa’s reindeer is actually Donder and not Donner, right?

Here’s a little history lesson for you. The poem “A Visit From St Nicholas”, commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas”, was written back in 1823 and is generally attributed to American poet Clement Clarke Moore (although there have been recent arguments that the poem was in fact written by his contemporary Henry Livingston Jr.) The original poem reads, in part:

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name.
“Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on Dunder and Blixem!

As explained on the Donder Home Page (no relation):

In the original publication of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823 in the Troy Sentinel, “Dunder and Blixem” are listed as the last two reindeer. These are very close to the Dutch words for thunder and lightning, “Donder and Bliksem”. Blixem is an alternative spelling for Bliksem, but Dunder is not an alternative spelling for Donder. It is likely that the word “Dunder” was a misprint. Blitzen’s true name, then, might actually have been “Bliksem”.

In 1994, the Washington Post delved into the matter by sending a reporter to the Library of Congress to reference the source material. (In past years, I’d been able to link to a Geocities site with the full text, but sadly, Geocities is no more.)

We were successful. In fact, Library of Congress reference librarian David Kresh described Donner/Donder as “a fairly open-and-shut case.” As we marshaled the evidence near Alcove 7 in the Library’s Main Reading Room a few days ago, it quickly became clear that Clement Clarke Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” wanted to call him (or her?) “Donder.” Never mind that editors didn’t always cooperate. […] Further confirmation came quickly. In “The Annotated Night Before Christmas,” which discusses the poem in an elegantly illustrated modern presentation, editor Martin Gardner notes that the “Troy Sentinel” used “Dunder”, but dismisses this as a typo. Gardner cites the 1844 spelling as definitive, but also found that Moore wrote “Donder” in a longhand rendering of the poem penned the year before he died: “That pretty well sews it up,” concluded Kresh.

So there you have it. This Christmas season, make sure you give proper credit to Santa’s seventh reindeer. On DONDER and Blitzen. It’s a matter of family pride.

Photo of three boys and a reindeer


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In 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting and photographing a charming extended family on a farm just south of town. It was truly one of the warmest, most fun days of portraits and play in the five years I’ve been in business, and since that warm summer day on the farm, I’m happy to have become friends with them as well. Through Trudy and her family, I’ve learned a lot about Type 1 Diabetes, as their youngest son has T1D. Rarely do I open up the blog for guest posts, but I wanted to share my platform with Trudy today on World Diabetes Day, because I really had no idea how a family struggles with T1D, and I wanted to help raise awareness. I also hope that some future family facing the diagnosis and frantically skimming through search results finds this post and finds hope and optimism.

November is National Diabetes Awareness Month and November 14th is recognized as World Diabetes Day.

There are two stories I want to share and they seem to conflict. The first story is the one I tell my young son. People with Type 1 can do anything. The other story is about what happens behind the scenes when a person has Type 1 Diabetes. That story is reserved for adults (family and friends), policy makers, school personnel, babysitters, reviewers of insurance claims and processors of requests for disability tax credits.

Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) is an auto-immune disease – for some unknown reason your body destroys the insulin-producing (beta) cells in the pancreas. When you have diabetes, you no longer produce insulin so you have to inject insulin (exactly the right amount each time, based mostly on food and activity) with a syringe or pump infusion, for the rest of your life. Only 10% of people with diabetes have T1D. Most people, including myself and family members, know little about T1D. We even missed the early symptoms which are warning signs. We are grateful for an informed daycare provider who shared her observations of extreme thirst and frequent urination. We know a lot more now!

Meet my son Dylan, now 7 years old. He was diagnosed at CHEO with Type 1 Diabetes at age two.

Photo courtesy of Dylan's family

Photo courtesy of Dylan’s family

We remind Dylan and his friends there is nothing anyone can do to prevent T1D and nothing you can do to cure yourself from T1D. That’s the one line I hope you’ll remember. Individuals with T1D can accomplish anything and generally speaking, they can eat anything. Dylan is an active young boy and a terrific athlete: he is a skier, he plays hockey, he has won a golf championship and he spends the summer swimming, fishing and paddling with his dog Gracie. He dreams of playing in the NHL, just like Max Domi, who has T1D and started in the NHL this year with the Arizona Coyotes.

Photo courtesy of Dylan's family

Photo courtesy of Dylan’s family

Behind the scenes is the second story, the one about the medical devices and decision making process that comes with management of a complex chronic condition. Some days our kitchen table looks like we’re analyzing air traffic control patterns. We download data from a continuous glucose monitor and insulin pump. These two devices, inserted beneath the skin and rotated to new locations every few days, do not speak to each other. People often believe a pump automatically gives you the insulin when you need it but that’s not how it works. It is based on careful review of logs and records ofr meals/activities/illness/unusual circumstances. You need lots of data to make good decisions. The past data informs future attempts to keep blood sugar in range. It fluctuates every hour around the clock. We are constantly monitoring and making adjustments daytime and nighttime. We calculate insulin to carbohydrate ratios and then figure how many carbohydrates are in an apple, a chocolate chip cookie, a bag of popcorn or mom’s homemade chicken soup with brown rice and quinoa. The number of carbohydrates and factoring in the planned activities is what primarily informs the dose of insulin. There are other variables such as hormones, stress, adrenaline, illness and even weather that mess with our data and make getting the right dose of insulin several times throughout the day and night a real guessing game. It’s hard work to be an artificial pancreas! Insulin will save your life but it can also cause death if overdosed. It requires constant vigilance and we are up several times each night to monitor blood sugar levels.

IMG_4390 Pump site

T1D is considered a disability in Ontario. I didn’t even know that for the first three years we managed our son’s disease! The Canada Revenue Agency explains the eligibility based on Type 1 Diabetes requiring more than 14 hours of Life Sustaining Therapy on the part person with Type 1 Diabetes (or a parent.) This will be for life.

How did I not know? Was I in denial? I was determined to make sure our lives would not change and focused on what was possible, which is everything. That’s still my starting position. Everything is possible with good communication and supports in place. The disability is invisible but requires careful management to keep him alive. In speaking with other parents, I came to understand the meaning of disability and the link to human rights and accommodation; perhaps a few extra minutes is required to take a blood sugar reading in the middle of a provincial school exam or being allowed to treat a low blood sugar by eating a snack that is kept in your emergency kit at your desk when it is not yet recess or lunch time.

Approximately 1 in 300 children have T1D and children under the age of five are the fastest growing segment. Because T1D is pretty rare, we often feel alone. Our school had no record of any previous student with T1D. It was all new. We connected with other families though social media. Children spend close to half of their waking hours at school, underscoring the importance of ensuring that students with T1D are safe and well-managed. Support for students with T1D remains inconsistent across Canada. There are discrepancies in resources and policies across the country, even among schools in the same jurisdiction. A huge advocacy effort is still needed to raise awareness and also to request funding for research.

Our family is well supported by family and friends and this makes a big difference. We are grateful that everything seems possible. We try to lighten the load for others who are on the same path. We participate each year in the JDRF Telus Walk to Cure Diabetes, volunteer with JDRF, meet with policy makers and influencers. With other parents, I helped to create www.sosdiabetes.ca

Team photo 2015

Insulin was discovered by Canadians in 1921. We’re hopeful a cure for diabetes will be discovered by 2021!

Until then, T1D looks like Dylan! Remember both stories. The visible face of T1D and believing that anything is possible and the behind the scene efforts required to manage this disease.


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I wish I’d noticed much earlier that a pair of robins were busy building a nest in our porch light fixture. The top of the fixture had blown off in an autumn wind storm, but since it is in an area protected from the elements, I really didn’t stress about replacing it. Then one day I noticed that someone had been busy and built an entire house in just a few days.

My first inclination was to leave it. A little birdy had worked hard to build a home for his family, and far be it from me to tear it down. What if there were already eggs in it? I didn’t have the heart.

But, that’s my porch light. When I mentioned to Beloved that I didn’t want to disturb the nest, he expressed concern that (a) dried grass and electric current do not mix and (b) even a compact fluorescent light would probably throw off enough heat to cook those poor eggs. Given my reluctance to relocate the nest, he did the next best thing and put a reminding piece of tape over the light switch inside. Good thing I never got around to installing that darkness-detecting auto-on light fixture!

Daddy robin is not terribly pleased with all of our coming and going right under his nest, and he has given me a few lectures for reposing on the porch swing when it’s too close to his nest. I’m happy enough to let them stay until the eggs hatch and the fledglings can make it on their own – within reason.

I did a little research, wondering when we might be able to reclaim our light fixture. Here’s five things I learned about robins:

1. Robins are among the first migratory birds to lay eggs in spring, and will ordinarily have two to three broods between May and July.

2. A new nest is built for each brood. (Phew!) Mama robin sits on her 3 to 5 eggs for approximately 14 days, and the fledglings leave the nest about two weeks after that.

3. Parent robins clean the nest after every elimination, carrying the waste away in their beaks.

4. Only 25% of hatchlings survive the first year. (Seems like a lot of effort for a not-very-high success rate!) A robin’s life span is approximately two years.

5. When you are reading Anne of Ingleside out loud to a 13-year-old and 11-year-old boy, they will not be able to resist throwing each other scandalized glances the first time you start to read about the Blythe family’s adopted pet bird, “Cock Robin.”

So, I figure we leave the nest there until Canada Day, and then we can reclaim our porch light. I may see if I can sneak up there with my camera soon to see if any inhabitants have appeared.


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I posted a rant on Facebook the other day in response to one of those quotey photo card things that basically said “I’m happy my childhood was filled with imagination and bruises instead of apps and how many likes you get on a picture.” The whole sentiment behind it infuriated me – the idea that somehow this generation of tweens and teens are having a lesser childhood because of technology.

My ranty reply said, in part, that the kids I know are far more worldly, empathetic and socially conscious than my generation ever was – and there is no better example of that than sentiment in action than We Day.

National We Day in Ottawa 2014

We Day, in case you haven’t heard of it, is an amazing series of events held across Canada and around the world to inspire youth to create change in their communities and around the world. It’s the love child of a stadium concert and a social activism conference. You can’t buy a ticket to get in, though – admission is free of charge to those students who earn their way in through service. Students commit to take action on at least one global and one local initiative of their choice as a part of the year-long educational intiative called We Act.

I think what most irks me about the patronizing “kids these days” quote I mentioned above is the insinuation that technology is making kids more shallow and somehow lesser people. In fact, kids today are incredibly creative and resourceful and they simply use technology as an extension of that creativity. TELUS, a a proud sponsor of Free the Children and We Day, believes that technology can empower people to make a real difference in the world. That’s why, together with Free The Children, they created We365, a free mobile app that enables youth to use their phones for good and propel social change through the power of technology, every day of the year.

National We Day in Ottawa 2014

The We365 app will help youth do even more to help their communities. Using the app, tweens and teens can rally friends around causes they support, share their accomplishments, and earn badges and points. Parents will also be happy to hear that the app tracks volunteer hours, which can be shared electronically and remove the need to keep track of all that pesky paperwork.

I’m deeply honoured that TELUS has invited me and a guest to attend National We Day in Ottawa next week. There will be inspirational appearances from heroes big and small, global and local: among many others, there will be Marlee Matlin, Kardinal Offishal, Amanda Lindhout, Mia Farrow, Spencer West, Neverest, and Ashley Rose Murphy, whose appearance last year so touched my heart. Born HIV positive and not expected to live more than a few days, then adopted into family of 10 children (eight of whom are disabled or have special needs), Ashley is today an active member of both her school council and a rock band. She’s also a talented speaker and wise beyond her years. One thing she said resonated with me all year: “These are the facts of my life. I can’t change them, I can only control how I live with them.”

Of all the attendees this year, though, I do believe the one I am most looking forward to is one just announced today. I first saw the story of “Butterfly child” Jonathan Pitre last year when the Ottawa Citizen ran a feature with haunting photos of Jonathan by photographer Julie Oliver. Jonathan suffers from an extreme form of Epidermolysis bullosa, a rare skin disorder that causes his skin to blister and tear at the slightest friction. Julie’s photographs were haunting and compelling, and Jonathan’s inner strength and spirit touched my heart. It was wonderful to then see the community reacting to his story, with thousands of dollars being raised for research and support to help those with Epidermolysis bullosa. Even the Sens got into the action, offering Jonathan a one-day ceremonial contract as a scout for the team. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say, and I’m so happy to see him being honoured by the We Day organizers.

National We Day in Ottawa 2014

I’ll be live-tweeting from Canada’s National We Day next Wednesday, April 1. Follow along at #WeDay, and watch the live stream at www.weday.com. And don’t forget to download the We365 app so you can learn from ‘kids these days’ how YOU can make a difference in YOUR community!


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Weekend project: Re-upholstering the dining room chairs

27 July 2014 Life, the Universe and Everything

We’ve had our dining room chairs for 15 years now. The summer we got married, we got them from the As-Is bin at Ikea, I know because the words “as is” are still written on the underside of them in indelible sharpie. For the $30 or so we paid for them, they’ve been worth their […]

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McDonald’s finally does away with “girl” and “boy” toy question

21 April 2014 Life, the Universe and Everything

I started to rant about this on Facebook, but the ensuing conversation in my kitchen inspired me to bring it back to the blog. Waaaaaaaaay back in 2006, I ranted my displeasure at being offered the choice between a “boy” toy and a “girl” toy happy meal at McDonald’s. I’d asked for a Polly Pockets […]

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We Day 2014: Learning that anything is possible

12 April 2014 Life in Ottawa

Imagine having the power to light the fire of inspiration in the hearts of 16,000 young people, and then sending them back into their homes and communities thrumming with the idea that they can be a powerful force of change in the world. Imagine the ripple effect of that empowerment and positivity. That’s what happened […]

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We Day is coming back to Ottawa!

3 April 2014 Ah, me boys

Next Wednesday, 16,000 students and educators from 420 schools throughout Canada will be gathering at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa to mark Canada’s National We Day 2014. For the third year, TELUS is partnering with Free The Children as National Co-Title sponsor of We Day, and they’ve invited Simon and I to attend the […]

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