A Travellerspoint blog

End of the Big Nerd Ranch, and Return of the Nerd

As an integral part of my computer geek past disappears, my computer geek future reopens!

overcast 10 °C

Kanata lays low across the landscape, a glass and steel enclave of high-tech fortresses with short, ultra-green grass and small perfectly trimmed trees. Large 4 lane roads run straight like arrows across the cornfields that separate the mirror glass buildings. Satellite dishes and PBX boxes mix into the natural landscape, like a new bred of bush, and soon become the resting place for weary birds confused by all the windows. Artificial ponds spurt water into the air outside entrances canopied by glass pyramids. Parking lots full of new, shining cars stretch out in concentric circles from the fenced compounds called "campuses" by the employees. The buildings are surrounded by small stands of trees, enclosing them in a forest-like atmosphere. The air is clean, fresh, free of the big city problems of smog or pollution. Standing at the farthest parking lot at the MicroStat Technologies "campus," facing the forest, but glancing back to see the full parking lot, and beyond that, the 5 story, black-glass building, I feel like a cowboy, standing on the edge of a new, wild frontier.

HiTech. What a fabulous word, so futuristic. We all speak a new language now, shorter and more direct then the old language my father spoke. We've eliminated the waste, replacing long words and phrases with three letter acronyms, pronounced with implied vowels. We've combined words, creating single words that used to take quadruple the syllables to say. Email, ATM, DOS, PC, HP, CNN, ESPN. It's fantastic, new, faster communication for our new faster world. Sometimes I feel like I am a pioneer of NewSpeak, just like 1984. Except no one drags you away in the middle of the night to room 101. It's all the gain without the pain. I love HiTech.

I wrote that in 1995. It was the opening two paragraphs of a novel I was working, back when I imagined myself the next Douglas Coupland. The novel (which I never finished, and re-reading now what I did complete I realize is pretty rubbish), about a software coder working at a company that created communications satellites, was heavily influenced by my experience working at Bell Northern Research in Ottawa.


Bell Northern Research was the research arm of communication equipment manufacturer Nortel (also known as Northern Telecom). Nortel was for a time one of the most valuable companies in Canada, and was a world leader in communications equipment. As internet companies became more and more valuable through the 1990s, Nortel, along with other companies that provided the underlying structure of the internet, grew in stock market valuations and in prestige. It was assumed as the internet grew exponentially, the need for the infrastructure that powered it would follow suit.

Two things smashed that vision, though. Firstly, the internet bubble burst, and the underlying need for architecture dried up. Secondly, compression algorithms continued to reduce the amount of bandwidth required to send information through the internet, which meant that telecom companies had projected much higher need for telecoms equipment than turned out actually to be needed. After 2000, Nortel started a long slow slide to oblivion, with the company now in the process of selling off all its business units and hard assets.

Back in 1992 and 1993 when I worked at the Carling Campus of Bell Northern Research in Kanata (just outside of Ottawa), the future still seemed quite bright. The campus on Carling Drive was a huge, set of connected glass buildings that let in tons of natural light, and was centred around a 7 storey atrium, topped with a glass pyramid. The buildings on campus were surrounded by nature, both man-made (including a lake) and natural (like the forested area bordering the property).

The campus had everything a young software engineer could want. A cafeteria with multiple choices for lunch. A small set of shops to fulfil your desire for munchies, drinks or the occasional pharmaceutical need like aspirin or cold remedies. Running tracks, a gym, bike racks and multiple softball fields, along with 5 different softball leagues depending on the level of competition you wanted to face.

Rents in the Ottawa area were pretty cheap, so I had a nice one-bedroom top floor apartment overlooking Crystal Bay and off into the Gatineau hills. I used to ride my bike the 30 minutes to work every morning, lock it up in the many bike racks (patrolled often by campus security), and grab a shower before heading to my cubicle. As all good software companies, we dressed casually. Jeans and t-shirts, or shorts in the hotter summer months. People who wore suits seemed like suckers to me. I felt more like an artist than a business person. Creating software was like snatching ideas from the ether and making them real. Michelangelo had marble. I had Unix and C++.

The Campus had a buzz about it as folks in the hallways discussed topics like optical technology, packet switching and asynchronous transfer mode. So many smart people, talking about smart things. Bell Northern Research – BNR. We called the campus the Big Nerd Ranch as a joke. Deep down, though, I was proud of working there. It wasn’t a nerd ranch, it was at the centre of the communications revolution that was bringing the world together. It was the heart of the global village. The campus - it felt futuristic.

That future was not to be. Not just for Nortel, but for me as well. Just a few years after I wrote the opening lines to my great (to ever be unfinished) novel, already the jobs of software engineers and computer programmers were leaving North America and heading overseas. I moved “up the value chain” and got into management consulting, concentrating instead on how technology could solve business problems, rather than creating the technology myself. Jeans and t-shirts got traded in for shirts and ties. The “art” of creating software became the “analysis” of solving business problems.

I really don’t miss the life of a coder very much. By the time I gave up coding in the late 1990s, I was pretty sick of it. It turns out it wasn’t really art, but more of a grind. Hours were incredibly long, and I started to develop a tick in my eye from all the strain of staring at computer screens endlessly. I also started to feel quite removed from the heart of the companies I was working for. IT was an enabler of the business, but it didn’t drive the business. Moving into areas where I was advising sales, marketing and customer care felt a lot more connected with the company’s goals and vision.

Given that I don’t much miss being a programmer, I was surprised that I was felt sad to read that the Nortel campus was sold this week to the Canadian Government, who are looking to house the Department of Defence on the site. While I haven’t been back to Ottawa in years, my last visit probably occurring in the 1990s, I still imagine that the campus hasn’t changed since my time there. It was – in my mind – an image of an alternate reality where people were still trying to hook up the world and provide a new, glorious connected future.


- - -

Ironically, as the location of my past life as a computer programmer ends, my future as a tech geek somewhat returns. I have changed jobs yet again (my fourth position now in the UK in the last four years. An unfortunate consequence of the ongoing near recession that we are experiencing). My new job is with a software company, where I will be doing project management. Maybe it won't be the future I quite imagined back in the mid-1990s, as like almost all software companies are development is done offshore, but I'm back in the world of high tech, this time worrying about how to roll out our software across companies with locations around the world. It is a mix and merge of responsibilities I had in my job as a software engineer and that tasks I performed in management consulting. And while I get to return to a life of wearing jeans and t-shirts to work, I won't have to stare endlessly at computer screens all day, so hopefully the tick in my eye won't return.

The future may not be what I thought it would be in the past, but it is here nonetheless, and it isn't too bad.

I've seen the future, and it will be. I've seen the future, and it works.
- Prince, The Future

Posted by GregW 02:59 Archived in Canada Tagged landscapes armchair_travel Comments (1)

Toronto: A Global City or My Home Town

sunny 16 °C

Writing about London as “a global city” recently got me thinking about Toronto, and why I felt I couldn’t become “an international citizen” while still living in Toronto.

One can’t read much about Toronto before hearing it linked to multiculturalism. The City of Toronto has a webpage celebrating the diversity of the population, and the last census revealed that 49.9% of the population was born in another country. It is a city with a rich diversity, and one can easily hop around town to experience various cultures - from China to Italy to Greece to India all for the price of a TTC day pass.

Monument to Multiculturalism, Union Station

Monument to Multiculturalism, Union Station

As an example of this, I recall the fourth of July, 2004. On that day Greece was playing Portugal in the final of the UEFA Euro 2004 football (soccer) tournament. I decided to go and watch the game with folks who had a vested interest in the outcome. The only question was whether I should head over to The Danforth to watch in Greektown, or head over to Ossington Avenue to watch with the Portuguese in Little Portugal. I ended up choosing the larger Greek population, and celebrated with the local Greek population on a closed Danforth Avenue after Greek won one-nil.

Toronto is very multicultural, but frankly so are many cities. What is it about Toronto that makes people equate it with multiculturalism more than other international cities?

Pico Iyer addresses this in the book The Global Soul: Jet-Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home which I read recently. In a chapter on Toronto entitled “The Multiculture,” he writes:

The first time I ever met the word multiculturalism was while reading an essay of Jan Morris’s, about Toronto, from 1984, in which she described meeting the word herself for the first time in a city that seemed to be built around it. The singular promise of Canada, for her, lay in the fact that it was no Promised Land, hand no torch-bearing statue, no vision of a City on a Hill nor constitution guaranteeing the pursuit of happiness. Canada seemed to her a vast and all-accommodating open space, “all things to all ethnicities,” with “Canadian nationality itself no more than a minor social perquisite, like a driving license or a spare pair of glasses.”

I think Jan Morris, whom Iyer quotes, was definitely on to something. The Canadian identity is a bit of a blank slate, without much of the history of European countries, nor the underlying ideology of self-made individualism that defines the American identity. Canadianism mixes the social collectivism of Europe with the Individualism of America. Being Canadian is about being an individual as part of a collective, but allowing others in that collective to be who they want to be. So one can easily come to Toronto from Delhi, and experience both the comforts of India in local shops, restaurants and clubs, and also the international experience that the rest of the city can offer.

I wrote in my recent blog entry “The Global City vs. This Other Eden,” that “I didn’t move to England looking to take on some new national identity, but rather to take on an international identity. I don’t want to be English and Canadian (or British-Canadian, if such a thing exists). I want to be global.”

If I wanted to be global, why then couldn’t I stay in Toronto and do that. After all, there was much opportunity to get out and experience other cultures. There was opportunity to be part of the global world in my work, and even in my personal life. Why did I have to leave to become a “global citizen?”


The answer, I think, lies in the consciousness with which I was living my life in Toronto. I was born in Toronto, lived there by the accident of birth rather than through a conscious choice to move there. As much as I wanted to see Toronto as the future, as a wide open outward looking place, the fact was Toronto was my history and wasn’t my choice. I was connected to Toronto as a locality, the physical place where I grew up. As global and multicultural as the city was, I was never able to shift my perception of the place as being the place town where I live.

I was unable to see the wider world contained within Toronto from within my own world. 

And so, perhaps unfairly to Toronto, I had to leave Toronto to be able to see the world contained within a city.

Some day I will probably return to Toronto - not just as a visitor but for good. I wonder if I will see the global, multicultural city or if it will still be the town in which I grew up.


Posted by GregW 15:30 Archived in Canada Tagged books migration_philosophy existential_migration Comments (0)

Just Outside The City Gates

Brick Lane and the East End versus the City

semi-overcast 12 °C

I headed over to Tower Hamlets today to go to the HYPER JAPAN festival. Unlike the Matsuri festival that I went to last year, which is focused on traditionally Japan, HYPER JAPAN seems focused on current, modern Japan. Especially, it seems, Cos Play, the special Japanese desire to dress up like Manga, Anime or Video Game characters.

I was just really going for the chance to eat some of the great Japanese food on offer. Unfortunately, I arrived and found a very long, long line up for those without tickets. I felt bad that I hadn't booked tickets, until seeing the line up for those that bought ticket ahead of time, which was as long as the line up for those without tickets. After 30 minutes of hanging out, and moving 10 feet in a 150 foot long line, I finally decided to give up on waiting, and headed over to Brick Lane to get some food.


Brick Lane has some great food options. From high end restaurants to delis to food stalls, Brick Lane is able to feed all budgets and hungers.


Brick Lane is in the east end of London. If this was back in the 1600s, the East End would exist just outside the walled city of London. Nowadays, it is the border between zone 1, 2 and 3 of the Transport for London Oyster zones.

The East End, in the borough of Tower Hamlets, sits beside the City of London. The borough of Tower Hamlets and the City (of London) have long lived beside each other, but have often faced off against each other. The East End of London is one of the most dense areas of London, and one of the most poverty stricken areas of the capital. The City of London, on the other hand, is where all the investment bankers and corporate raiders work. The two areas exist beside of each other, both visible from each other area.


That one of the poorest and densest areas of London can look up and see the glass and steel towers of the City - the work place of some of the richest people in London and one of the richest areas of London - is part of the experience of living here in this city. (And - of course - any city. All cities bring together those on all ends of the income scale).


After eating a cheap but tasty burger, and getting offer a blow job in exchange for a "cup of tea" (which made me wonder how much cups of tea cost out in the east end...), I headed home.

I didn't get to see Japan today, but did get to see a bit of the the city of London and how we all fit together here.

Posted by GregW 10:47 Archived in England Tagged events Comments (0)

The Global City versus This Other Eden

Reflecting on the romantic notions of the immigrant for the land they are embarking for...

overcast 14 °C


This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

- Richard II, William Shakespeare

I recently read The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home by Pico Iyer. In the book, Iyer examines the experience of voluntary migrants and constant travellers in our increasingly connected world. Iyer calls these people Global Souls, and looks at how our sense of self, sense of place and even the physical places we inhabit are impacted by these global souls.

You can read all my thoughts on the entire book in a review I wrote for the Travellerspoint Book Club. As a quick aside, the Travellerspoint Book Club supports the Travellerspoint Foundation, which in turn offers loans through Kiva. It is a good cause, and clicking through to Amazon via the link in the book club and buying the book will provide some money for the Foundation. So, if you are interested in the book, please do use the link in the review to buy it.

A number of things struck me when reading the book, some of which will no doubt find their way into blog entries here. As a start, I have been doing some thinking around the chapter called The Empire.

This chapter is about the experience of people moving from former British colonies to England. He talks of how people, like Iyer’s parents who moved from India to the United Kingdom, come with certain expectations, built up from years of having an English school education (though provided in India) and hearing of the green rolling hills and rolling seas from Tennyson and Wordsworth. They develop romantic visions of a land of impeccably dressed aristocrats punting on the Cam and gentle countryside. It is a land full of noble Englishmen, believers in justice, fairness and chivalry.

These visions are dashed as they arrive to find a place that is modern and international, full of all the problems and prejudices of any place.

I read the chapter, and felt completely perplexed by it. It wasn’t an experience I felt at all. I realised that I really had no romantic impressions of England when I arrived. While I have noticed many of the things about the English that those in Iyer’s book point out, I haven’t felt disappointed by that at all.

In a small part, I think that is because I never received an “English” education back in Canada, but rather one that was distinctly Canadian in the fact that it was a mash of American and English values and knowledge.

Mostly though, I think this boils down to the fact that I never wanted to, nor really feel that I have moved to England. I moved to London. It was not the romantic and historic images of Victorian manor house England that drew me here, but the modern urban and international reputation of London. What drew me was the city. This city, one of the alpha cities of our global world, at the heart of the global business and travel. A place where people come to live an international life. London is in England, but had it been in Germany or Chile or Cambodia, I probably would have been as happy moving there instead.

Perhaps this paints me firmly as one of Iyer’s Global Souls – those who pick up and move elsewhere, looking for a home “in the midst of the alien and the indecipherable.” I didn’t move to England looking to take on some new national identity, but rather to take on an international identity. I don’t want to be English and Canadian (or British-Canadian, if such a thing exists). I want to be global.

I must admit, for a moment I felt smug, better than those who come to England looking for a land of hedgerows and stone walls flowing endlessly across the moors. “How silly,” I thought, “to expect the reality of a place to be the same as the imagining of Victorian poets.”

Then I thought deeper about my own thoughts before moving to London. London seemed a perfect place to come and live this global dream. The world’s busiest airport, one of the centres of global finance and business, a landing point and destination for those from around the world. I envisioned a post-national, urban city state humming on the banks of the Thames.


Where did these images come from? From the business pages of national newspapers and articles in the Economist. From travel articles and airline maps. From international thrillers by Robert Ludlum and Ian Fleming.

My visions of London were as romanticised as the vision of Iyer’s ancestors’ visions of England. My view of the city from afar as the centre point of an airline style map of the world, where millions of connections converge is probably as misconstrued of visions of England as punting on the Cam, manor houses and manners.

Now I have been in London for over two years, I have had my unrealistic, romantic visions of the place buried, and have adjusted to the reality of living here. The city does have an international flare, and sometimes wandering London’s streets can be like travelling around the world by foot. However, I have also come to accept that despite a desire to live globally, we all must live locally too. No matter how urban and international the city, there is still a physical place that is “home,” and there I wash my clothes and cook my dinner and have to vacuum the rugs.

On reflection, Iyer’s second last chapter, on England, has now grown on me. I see that it is a meditation on the baggage of expectation we bring to a place, and where that baggage can take you. You can, as one of Iyer’s friends, become bitter and disillusioned at the place and its failings to live up to the image in your head. Or you can, like most immigrants, set aside your expectations and learn to live in your new home.

I like to think that I am taking the second path. Setting aside what I dreamt, and learning to embrace the city wide awake.

Posted by GregW 11:45 Archived in England Tagged books travel_philosophy migration_philosophy Comments (0)

A White Spider Writing On The Sky

The Outrace Installation in Trafalgar Square

sunny 18 °C

Working is hard. You get up every morning, do your shift, endlessly repeating the same task over and over.

"Geez," you think, "I need a vacation."

"You can't take a vacation," your boss says. "You're a robot."

Why let that stop you, though. You dream of getting away. Maybe seeing a beautiful city. In one of your rare coffee (actually, a 5W30 oil) breaks, you read about folks who take holidays to paint, sculpture and create art.

"Yeah, it's time to get away," you think. "I'm going to go to London, and PAINT! Paint... IN THE SKY!"

So you and seven friends book a trip from Ingolstadt, Germany to London.


Eight industrial robots, usually used to build Audi automobiles, have been installed in Trafalgar Square by artists Clemens Weisshaar and Reed Kram. The Outrace installation, which was in place from September 16th to the 23rd as part of the London Design Festival.

At the end of the Robot arms are a set of LED lights, which the robots use to trace letters in the air. It's not possible to see the letters when looking at the exhibit in Trafalgar Square, but thanks to slow exposure cameras to capture the lights, you can go to the website, or Youtube to see the images.


Website visitors could enter a message, and if picked by the robots, they would draw it out for you and send you a link. I put in three messages, and one of them got picked to be drawn.

If the robots are making the art, what are the artists to do? can be viewed at Youtube if you can't see the video above.

I liked my message, and think it decent and arty. Some messages, though, are priceless, like this one submitted by Gavin Olukoju from London.

Make your time, for the Robots are here!


Posted by GregW 00:33 Archived in England Tagged art tourist_sites Comments (0)

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