the-inbetween.com is a weblog by Mike Nowak.
September 24th, 2013

Places

Here we are in this post Google Reader world wondering whether our RSS feed url was transferred over to any of the replacement services (I’ve been using feedly.com myself but the user interface is losing me) or if it is being published to an audience of none. Many weblogs have long since shuttered but I’m still fond of the concept of a weblog and like to add to it occasionally if only to keep a continuous record of my long-time transition from a cynical teenaged weblogger to a cynical adult weblogger to a happily married adult with some web space that he’s been paying for almost fourteen years straight now.

The road of life had many curves over the last two years but the most recent months have, relatively speaking, stabilized. We’re in a ground-floor flat in London’s north west end. I am one Jubilee Line ride away from my job in the suit-ish Canary Wharf in which I do not belong and nor does an ad agency, which explains why they’re moving next year. There, I build websites for cars I have no chance of affording.

Most of our free time in London is spent at the movies thanks to a pair of unlimited cards that get us into any Cineworld film screening at any time anywhere for a monthly fee that is basically equivalent to one and a half regular entry tickets. It is the one good deal to be found in this expensive city and Linda and I are making the most of it even if it means watching a lot of awful movies. And let me tell you, this year has been stocked full with awful.

The weird result of this constant film watching is that we’ve stayed in touch with, via cinematic tourism, our pre-UK homes. This summer it’s as though every other film we’ve seen has either been filmed in Toronto (or Canada in general, as in “Man of Steel” or “Wolverine”) or strongly featured Mexico, if for often stereotypical drug-dealer reasons. I’m not sure what it says about current American xenophobic mindsets but a lot of the Mexican characters in these films have been villains. Even in something as light as “Despicable Me 2″ do we see a Mexican antagonist. It’s tiring. “Elysium”, however, was unique in that it scored the double: it was filmed in both Mexico and Canada, despite pretending to be neither, and the Mexicans were the good guys. It’s too bad that the rest of the film was a disappointment.

A slight tinge of nostalgia colours these moments of cinematic tourism but the sentimentality fades when we leave the cinema or, more often, when we see a film set in the city we currently call home. There are many of those too. We watched Danny Boyle’s “Trance” in a theatre located literally across the street from the film’s major plot point. We watched Tim and Mary fall in love in “About Time” on the Bakerloo Line, a short hop on the 16 or 189 bus down from where we were living. We watched some stupid shit happen in Furious 6.

Seeing London on film now highlights how little home relates to something on screen. It’s all staged. They are places as real as any Alaskan or Hong Kong location filmed in Toronto’s Pinewood Studios. Landmarks might be recognizable but it’s the personal experiences that differ. Toronto was once home, but now it’s the place where I met and fell in love with Linda. Mexico was home for a little while, but now it’s where we got married. London is where we live now, and we have a home here, but the city isn’t it. Home is wherever she is — my love — and that is placeless. No film can reflect that.

I haven’t written much here lately but this is as good a time and place as any to self-promote some other online contributions over these last months.

Pocket Tactics: after a long hiatus during the whole moving to another continent thing, I’ve started writing there again with a couple of reviews of nice indie mobile games that I really loved: HACK-868 and Rymdkapsel. I have realized I’m a notoriously slow writer. I’m holding out hope that it is attributable to lack of recent practise, but I’m not so sure of it.

nullscapes: I’ve been contributing to my Tumblr again at nullscapes.tumblr.com which has grown into a far more focused affair than the random “stuff I like” that it used to be. At the very least this focus has got me noticed by Tumblr editors and now my face is there on Tumblr’s “Spotlight” under the dreaded “curators” category, whatever that means. If anything my Tumblr follows the above fascination with place and lack there of.

delicious: I started posting to delicious again, for some unknown reason. It just hit its 10 year anniversary (I joined up a little over a month later) which officially makes me feel ancient by internet standards, but with its new redesign it is still the best site for what it is. Except for maybe pinboard.in which I’m too cheap to pay for now.

music: I’m still posting weekly or semi-weekly favourite tunes to This Is My Jam and frequently liking all sorts of stuff on SoundCloud. So far this year one of my favourite albums and tracks comes from, by way of Hyperdub, Hamilton Ontario.

work: Hey, I’m still available for freelance web work if needed. Maybe I’ll have an updated (and public) portfolio before 2015. Just in time for my first completed game some time before 2025. OK, maybe I’m still a little cynical.

February 21st, 2013

2012

2012 was a confounding year, the majority of which was spent in Mexico for reasons previously described, but an amazing one too for nothing else than because I got married to an wonderful woman. We’ve been inseparable. I love her.

In 2012 we’ve split our time between Queretaro and Mexico City, with a honeymoon sojourn in Cuba and a holiday break in Nayarit. I worked on some nice freelance projects, upgraded some of my web development skills, listened to a lot of good new music, played some quality (mostly mobile) games, and started writing at Pocket Tactics (over here.) I used to write about games a lot more often in the past, even mobile board games, so it’s nice to get back into that. In many ways 2012 feels like a foundation year. A year that sees me setting the stage for the future more than any other year in the past and a lot of that motivation stems from the fact that it’s no longer my future but our future. I couldn’t be happier to share it with her.

With that love I have no doubt that we will succeed. This year, I’ll be a better writer, I’ll be a better web developer, I’ll be a better critic, I’ll be a better photographer, and, most importantly, I’ll be a better man. We will push it and take it as far as we can. To that extent we are moving to London, England in two weeks.

It all started in 2008 when I quit my job and went to London and Paris for four months. I spent most of that time wandering those massive cities and taking photographs like a lonely flaneur. It gave me perspective. Walking those streets all alone those many years ago I never would have expected that I would move back to London with the love of my life. Funny things happen when you leave your confort zone.

June 26th, 2012

Canada <--> Mexico

I’ve been in Mexico for almost four months now. I’m happy to be here, very much so, but this isn’t what I’d call a vacation. Our new home, in between several stints in Mexico City, is the tiny city of QuerĂ©taro, metropolitan population one million. By my Canadian standards it’s a large city, but when you’re next to a city of 21 million it feels quaint and provincial. The historic centre of the city, a well preserved patchwork of narrow roads and colonial architecture, underlines that feeling of tranquility. That was the motivating factor for coming here of all places. Queretaro is a fast growing business hub, close to Mexico City and in the middle of the country along major trade routes, that has somehow managed to avoid the problems plaguing the majority of the country. There’s a lot of work and it is, as the locals say, muy tranquilo.

I’ll admit to my Canadian ignorance and say that before the decision to come here, I never heard of Queretaro. Why would I? On the list of most populous cities in Mexico it’s down at 17 which would make it the Mexican equivalent of Vaughn. If you were to search for news about Queretaro all you’d really find is maybe some sports news and some talk about a new Bombardier factory here. It doesn’t rate internationally. In many ways it’s down right boring but when faced with certain alternatives in other parts of the country it is a welcome type of mundane.


Queretaro, Plaza de Armas

We met in Toronto in what was the start of her fifth year in Canada. We hit it off immediately. Our first date was like something out of a Richard Linklater film, nearly a full day’s worth of walking and talking all around the city. By the time we spent a long weekend together in Montreal that summer, we were in love. That summer was magical. Then autumn came and it was shit. Within the span of a month I lost my mother and the love of my life was denied residency in Canada. She was forced to leave back to her native Mexico. At the end of February, I came with her.

As a first generation immigrant myself, and a refugee claimant at that (back in the days of the Cold War and martial law in my homeland, a decidedly different social climate), I had foolishly expected more from Canada. “No, why would they deny you?” I thought. “You have a business degree from a good school. You are absolutely fluent in English and you speak a bit of French. You’ve lived here for five years, working the whole time (sometimes two jobs), to support the family you came with, never once relying on any social assistance. You paid lots of taxes. Your niece is Canadian, born right here in Mississauga. Why would Canada not want you to stay?” And yet, there we were.

In the final denial she was presented with a written explanation that came across as a poorly researched grasp at straws written by a minister’s unpaid intern. It mentioned the prospect of relocation to Guadalajara, never mind that she’s from Mexico City and has very few, if any, connections to that city. It was probably the only city the staffer could think of, likely because the Pan American Games had just finished there. Guadalajara was spelled wrong multiple times. They referenced a completely inaccurate tax record, showing her income as being considerably lower than it was. The report cited the unemployment rate and noted, correctly, that it’s lower in Mexico than Canada as if that was some sort of indicator of a great standard of living. Yes, with her degree she can secure a job in Mexico easily but isn’t that missing the point? If your own unemployment rate is lagging wouldn’t you want to keep the people that work hard and pay taxes?

(The final insult came on the day we left when she privately met with an immigration official at the airport to receive her Mexican passport and confirm her departure. Expectantly emotional, she lashed out at the immigration officer in French who responded by demanding that she speak in English. Here was a federal representative in charge of immigration matters in a bilingual country that didn’t speak a modicum of French.)

The whole process seemed rushed, with an illusion of procedure to hide predetermined biases. It became clear to me based on this and other second hand stories that Canada was specifically targeting Mexicans for denial. Official figures collaborate that. The rate for accepted applications in the Mexican community was considerably lower than within other communities, especially compared to some Asian colleagues. That rate is likely to drop more with the current government planning to label Mexico a “safe” country, essentially ruling out appeals on refugee claims by turning a blind eye to any social problems here. Never mind that the government’s own travel site warns Canadians, in bold red, to “avoid non-essential travel” to a large chunk of the country.

She had the misfortune of coming to Canada in 2007, after graduating, when the massive surge of Mexicans overloaded the many Canadian immigration offices. It was unfortunate timing, unbeknownst to her back then, as that wave, mostly of Mexicans coming across from the USA, changed the refugee dynamic drastically. The acceptance percentage dropped as the rate of applicants rose by the thousands and, in an effort to combat that flow, Canada later imposed visa requirements for Mexican visitors. You know, despite being friends, continental neighbours and supposed NAFTA partners.

There were many causes for this: tightening restrictions in the USA forced many American illegals to seek asylum one border further north; the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 in the USA essentially created a new market for cross-border crystal meth production and greatly empowered Mexican drug cartels which had predominantly been trafficking intermediaries rather than producers, and the power struggles because of it greatly lowered the country’s security situation; the election of Felipe Calderon at the end of 2006 and his militaristic intervention into the drug situation in the country brought further levels of violence and instability to many parts of the country, particularly the northern border regions; and, tellingly, Canada’s own courting of Mexican immigrants in the preceding years likely contributed too (so much for that.)

Were there people that abused the system? Absolutely. I’m sure there were many. However, in taking such a blanket approach to an entire country rather than legitimately considering cases on an individual basis, Canada has shut the door on many hard-working, skilled immigrants and, even worse, doomed many valid refugee applicants to their death. I can understand that immigration offices were understaffed and unprepared to deal with the load but when a problem like that arises you throw more bodies at it, you don’t clear the slate, throw your hands in the air, and yell out “fuck it” as you delete every old and pending application.

If justice is dependent on fairness, Canada has not shown it to those wishing to call it home. The Catch-22 of the situation is that the government’s official position is that Mexico is “safe” and livable, giving them an excuse to deny most applicants, but if everything was so tranquil would there have been such a surge of migrants in the first place? Isn’t that wave telling of something and doesn’t that deserve a more nuanced approach?

I don’t know what the answers are, but I know that this fight isn’t over: it’s just beginning. I’d write the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration (though he seems to be, uhh….) I’d write my Member of Parliament. I’ll write here. I’ll sponsor her. We are evaluating our options and, sadly, some of those options don’t include Canada. We shall see.

Yes I speak from a biased position, but as a first generation immigrant myself I expected more from my adopted country. I’m proud to be Canadian and to have grown up in such an inclusive place, with friends from all over the world — indeed, I knew more people born outside of Canada than from within, not surprising as half of Toronto’s population is from another country — but now I find myself stuck between the country that accepted and fostered me, to a measurable level of success, and the woman that I love. Canada has no chance in this battle.

October 25th, 2011

Elzbieta Kocot-Nowak: 28-04-56 — 24-10-11

My mother passed away peacefully yesterday evening, just before 17:40 on Monday October 24th, at Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital with my father, my sister, and myself at her side. She was 55.

Elzbieta was a proud and caring mother to the end, never wavering in her love and devotion for her children. Even in the worst of times her first thought was for our well being. It is a love I won’t ever forget and a memory that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

The last two months in the intensive care unit were difficult but hard fought. Though the battle was lost we find solace in the thought that she no longer has to struggle. The memory of her happier times will persevere. For everything else in life I will live knowing that the last time I saw her lucid, communicative, and with the fire that always burned brightly in her eyes, I told her, and she knew, how much I loved her. A most beautiful orange sunset was seen when she passed.

Mamusia kochana, you will be missed but never forgotten.

Public visitation will be at Glen Oaks in Oakville on Thursday October 27th at 10am. The funeral will be at 11am.

June 27th, 2011

The Antarctic: Damoy Point

The relaxed nature of the voyage didn’t diminish in the slightest the sense of achievement that came from setting foot on the most remote and desolate of the seven continents, and swimming there. While the ship that took us down to the Antarctic wasn’t some five star luxury liner — it was an old converted car ferry, actually — it’s safe to say that the price of the expedition was the most uncomfortable aspect of it and even with that I lucked out and had a full double suite to myself. So by a loner’s measure of worth even the price, for what I had, wasn’t too bad. And the food? Many fellow expeditioneers boarded the ship with little expectation for the meal service, but everyone left surprised and pleased and stuffed. Even the late spring weather co-operated, bringing a lot of sunshine and (relatively) calm seas for the infamous Drake crossing. We had a BBQ on deck as we passed through the Lemaire Channel. In short: it was a comfortable trip.

The real highlight, of course, was the time spent off ship. The expedition, in very clear terms, didn’t promise or guarantee anything in regards to landfall as everything was dependent on weather and ice, but the conditions were so good for us we managed to make each and every one of our two daily attempted landings along the peninsula plus an extra one on Aitcho Island after the initial Drake Crossing. We were 13 out of 13. The expedition team made it a point to mention that only 10% of these trips make all landings and that, on the other end of the spectrum, 10% don’t make any at all. As with everything else on this trip fortune was smiling on me.

These landings, aboard durable Zodiacs, were two to three hour long excursions so we’d spend upwards of four to six hours a day trudging in knee deep snow and penguin shit. That was considerably more than than the quick, light outings on to shore and back that I expected. Those alone would have been worth the trip, but to be able to stake out a spot and sit down and watch a penguin colony alone for over an hour straight or to go for a long hike up a mountain was amazing. It really let you absorb the sounds and motions of that distant continent and sometimes in relative seclusion.

The fourteenth landing stood out above all. It was the least guaranteed and the most limited of all, restricted to those that booked months in advance and only the first twenty (out of the ship’s capacity of about 110.) I was one of the twenty. We waited, hopeful, for a green light from the crew on the 17th of December, the one and only time this was possible. The weather was good enough to warrant excitement but, still, none of the previous expeditions had managed to do it and conditions were always so variable down there. We hoped we’d be the first group of the season and, just before dinner’s dessert, the announcement came: everything was good and we had a few minutes to get ready, meet up in the mud room, and prepare to go ashore and spend the night on the Antarctic. We eagerly left the dining room past the jealous looks of the other passengers and, aboard two Zodiacs, we set off for Damoy Point. It was already late in the evening.

On the snow we were briefed, paired up, assigned a spot for our tents, and given a shovel. I hadn’t so much as touched a tent in eleven years and here I was about to set one up on the fucking Antarctic. It was surreal. The tents needed level ground and, more importantly, protection from any possible katabatic winds that might roll down the mountain over night so the first priority was to dig out, essentially, little forts in the snow for them. While it was calm and warm by Antarctic standards the last thing you want to experience on this continent is a cold, bitter wind. You have to prepare for all conditions and that includes the camp site. No one said that such a night would be easy, but lucky for us there were remnants of a previous campsite, with somewhat pre-dug holes, from a British maintenance crew’s past stay. They had been there to spruce up and clean up the nearby historic British refuge hut so their trace remnants made the digging light and all our tents were up and ready in little time. I had no desire to use mine.

Because of ever shifting work commitments and finances — the nature of being self-employed — I was unable to go on a hoped-for trip to the Yukon’s arctic circle for the summer solstice. Something about the idea of the midnight sun always fascinated me and when I was informed that Gap Adventures’ Antarctic expeditions were on sale that summer I knew this was my second-chance opportunity. I booked it for as close to the austral summer solstice as possible. I knew we’d be fairly south by that date and with my normal nocturnal tendencies I figured that I would stay up late, bundle up, and watch the midnight sun from the comforts of the ship’s deck. When the camping option was announced several months later I knew I had a chance to enjoy that night on land, away from the ship’s distracting lights. I pounced on the option in a heartbeat.

Back on Damoy Point at around midnight, with the low sun shining the most amazing orange light I’ve ever seen (and made all the more beautiful by the white canvas that was the local mountains), we were free to wander around and explore. To the south was a large hill from which you could get a good vantage point, to the east was the ice covered inlet where we landed, nearby were two refuge huts, and further north there were a few scattered and small Gentoo Penguin colonies. The closest refuge hut was an Argentinian shack, painted bright red, that stood out in the white landscape like a dream. It was locked and restricted. The second, a freshly painted green shack, was an accessible historic site with all sorts of interesting ephemera. There were bottles of liquor with written notices to replace anything sampled and requests to leave new bottles. A log book for all visitors to sign whose last entry was from a ship that had to be rescued and towed into Ushuaia’s harbour due to a really bad storm that barreled through the cape a couple days before we departed. Various rations and canned foods (labeled “MANFOOD”) and a hand-made Monopoly clone and maps and books, a large central table, and bare-bone bunk beds in the back room. It wasn’t the a four star hotel but if I were to be stranded on the Antarctic for weeks I wouldn’t have minded being protected from the elements in there.

Camp site takes form
Camp in the setting sun
Dusk on the bay
Illuminated Mountains

The two guides went to sleep early, one in an open ditch in the snow with a blanket and the other in a dug out cave in the pile of snow above the water and rocks of the landing site. That was too hardcore for the rest of us who, apart from a few sticking within their tents, were left to our own devices. I went to watch the penguins. There was a novelty to it at Damoy due to the late hour as the colonies were quieter places than on previous landings. The occasional penguin chirp would still ring out through the night, but most penguins were out of the water, resting or sleeping. Some slept on their bellies and some slept standing up with their heads tilted to the side. It was a sight you wouldn’t have been able to see during the avian hustle and bustle of the normal morning and afternoon excursions.

It started to get darker after one in the morning as the sun dipped to its lowest point below the horizon and some darker clouds rolled in. The winds remained light but the greyer skies and prolonged exposure started to make things feel a lot colder. I dug out, from one of my inside pockets, my cell phone and switched on the GPS sensor and started the runkeeper application so that I can at least have a record of the exact location and, more so, a really, really far-out place in my runkeeper activity log. I let it run for a half hour which covered nothing more than a short half kilometre walk, to the western overlook from which you could see the anchored ship and back. The activity is public.

A short while later I headed back towards the refuge hut after seeing, from the distance, one of the campers make some unusual gestures and a bunch of others amass there. After the trudge through the snow to the hut I entered to find half the group along the big wooden table with a bunch of cheap plastic cups about to open a bottle of wine. It was, by all intents and purposes, illicit wine: bringing food and drink onto the continent is forbidden for all excursions. That has its reasons and I don’t mean to belittle them but from the confines of that hut nothing was getting out to where a bird could reach and it was, above all else, a moment, a scene, and a location most deserving of a toast and I’m glad that someone had the foresight, and the gall, to smuggle a bottle of wine and a bunch of cups in their pack for that to happen.

These late hours are when the portable toilet–just as nothing is to be brought onto the continent, nothing is to be left there either–sitting out in the open, exposed to everything, was most used. The awkwardness of it being so exposed was secondary to the pains of getting through all the winter gear we were wearing. My snow pants were held up by suspenders which were run under the fleece that was under my winter jacket, and after that I still had my regular pants and thermals to contend with. I left this task to the latest possible hour when the fewest amount of people were around. Deep into the night, at well past 2am, the number of stragglers at Damoy could be counted on one hand. After doing my deed, I continued walking back and forth until I finally parked my ass down on the snow near the closest penguin colony across the bay from the camp site. From there I watched the remaining few penguins still in the water and the remaining people disappear into their tents. I was alone.

Skies beginning to clear as the sun returns in the middle of the night.

Perhaps it says a lot about me that my most cherished memory from a six week trip was the couple of hours I spent alone in the middle of night, in the middle of nowhere, a thousand kilometres from the nearest point of civilization. I took a rest along the north end of the site, with a view of the camp and the bay, and watched the water and the clouds and let the enormity of it all hit me. It was then that I noticed increased commotion from the penguins on the shore. There was a dark spot moving slowly through the water. I grabbed my camera bag and pulled out my zoom lens and took a closer look and it was clear why the penguins were more active: a leopard seal was in the vicinity. I watched the leopard seal calmly swim around the bay and saw all the penguins take notice and get the fuck out of the water and huddle on the rocks near the shore worried about this potential penguin eater. The seal, however, remained stoic. It circled around the bay, never engaging in any hunting behaviour, and swam off into the distance with an unwavering predatory swagger. This behaviour, I would later learn from the ship’s wildlife expert, is called patrolling. The seal was testing the waters looking for any easy prey but wasn’t in the mood, or need, to exert itself to find a meal. Then it was gone. That moment was was unique amongst all the shared experiences and sights of the continent. That stood, above all else, as the one memory that was solely mine and I shall cherish it for ages.

In those remaining grey hours, while shivering and trying my hardest not to doze off, I felt the majesty and scale of the continent. Nature was doing what it always did and I was a mere witness. On the Antarctic. Under the 3am sunlight. Alone. No matter how comfortable and easy to arrange that voyage was, it will never diminish the achievement that I feel for having done it. It will haunt my dreams for the rest of time.

Short video of Damoy Point
Like a dream.
June 10th, 2010

BlockiAd

In the early 2000s, Flash was supposed to revolutionize online advertising. Its animation and drawing capabilities, combined with the scripting and interactivity of ActionScript, were the future. Advertisements that users could play around with, in ways more complex than punching a monkey, were seen as a compelling alternative to the passive ads of tv, print, and flashing animated gif ads of the past. The word bandied around this type of advertising was “sticky.”

None of it stuck. While there has been a lot of good and interesting work over the years, the majority of those types of ads have been forgettable, obnoxious, and irritating. The majority of everything is horrible and Flash ads aren’t any different, but the stigma stuck. Users became increasingly aggravated and then came two final nails in the coffin.

As browsers opened up and became extensible, ad and Flash blocking add-ons grew increasingly popular. Then Google entered the fray, offering really simple text based ads that had the distinction, thanks to Google’s massive databases, of being super contextual to where they were placed. Flash experiental ads, while still around, no longer have that optimism anymore.

So with that it was interesting to see Apple focus so much on their new advertising platform, iAds, at last week’s WWDC. They demoed interactive rich media, some would say “flashy”, advertisements that were targeted at mobile devices. Words like “engaging” were used. The future was likely mentioned. And I feel like I’ve heard it all before. And I as a user, and as someone that made those same obnoxious Flash ads, don’t share that optimism and I hope that history repeats.

Apple, of course, doesn’t want that. It denied Adobe’s Flash in its iOS. If you want to make these flashy ads on its platforms, you have to do it their way. It, effectively, banned Google from advertising on its device. It has strict control of what is and isn’t allowed in the AppStore, so you’ll never get an ad blocker (even if they push one out in their own browser on the desktop.) It’s doing everything in its power to control and minimize the things that led to those very same ads becoming the ignored whipping boy of the web.

There’s just one problem with that strategy and why things are a little different than they were when the wild web was embracing rich ads: there is only one web, but there are other mobile platforms. It’ll be interesting to see how iAds are handled and how consumers react.