Patriotism, Kamerade?


Friday, January 16, 2004


I now have my US and Canadian passports (the story detailing the hassle of doing so can be found here), and I find the differences between the two -- mainly in the pictures and related security features -- to be rather interesting.


Let's take a look at the Canadian passport first; in order to try and avoid any potential legal hassles (and to frustrate stalkers), I have blanked out certain information:

You can see some of the security features, namely the wavy lines running across the bottom of my picture and the maple leaf and the word "CANADA" embossed on the page, but there's lots more -- the holographic film covering most of the page will show, depending on the angle it's lit at:

- More maple leaves, some in a spiral pattern that recedes into the distance.

- The word "Canada" in the official Canadian font (I have no idea what said font is, but it looks like this:

- A bunch of Mounties on horseback, some carrying lances -- I'm not sure if they're part of the RCMP Musical Ride or not, though.

- The wavy lines you see are part of the security film.

The rest of the passport is fairly plain, a bunch of maple leaves on each of the remaining pages. You'll notice a box with the legend "Signature goes here," which has a digital copy of my signature that I suppose can be compared with the one that I wrote inside the passport when I received it.


Now, let's look at the same page from a US passport:

While some things like the machine-readable code at the bottom of the page are the same no matter which one you're looking at, and there're also holographic images (in this case, again depending on the lighting angle, we get eagles, pictures of a shield and the Liberty Bell and wavy lines of "THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" intertwined with "E PLURIBUS UNUM"), the most striking difference involves the photo of your humble scribe:

- First, we see the big "USA" graphic at the top of the picture; this explains why the US passport photo requires a certain amount of "white space" above the head.

- You can also see "USA" at the bottom of the photo; this is part of the holographic film.

What isn't part of the holographic film, though, are the 3 stars on the left side of the picture as well as the wavy blue lines over the picture -- these are plainly visible no maatter how the page is held and independent of the lighting. I suppose these are symbolic of the US flag (stars and stripes, get it?), but I wonder why the decision was made to make the picture just a bit harder to view when comparing it to the person carrying the passport?

The rest of the pages are faintly printed with the seals of all the states, approximately 5 per page.

Personally, I like the Canadian passport better because it appears to my eyes less cluttered; I think the US passport goes a bit overboard with the patriotic aspect -- but all in the name of national security, I'm sure. On the other hand, a US passport is good for ten years while the Canadian passport expires in five years, so I'm not going to complain too much since it "lasts" twice as long.




Another New Year's Eve blowout


Saturday, January 3, 2004


Since it's the beginning of a new year, I shall now provide the obligatory "What I Did For New Year's Eve" report.

This NYE, like the two previous, I spent at a place called Iron Bay in Indian Arm, courtesy of the Deep Cove Yacht Club who had hired me to put on a fireworks show. The DCYC has an outstation in Iron Bay where their members can moor when they want to get away from it all, and as you can see from the pictures the view is fantastic.

Due to some problems with last year's show (namely that the original shipment of fireworks went missing somewhere between Montreal and Vancouver and the replacements we managed to scrounge together were rather limited in variety), this year's fireworks were not only fancier but larger and there were more of them; last year we had about 40 pieces with nothing over 5 inches and this year I had 55 pieces including a few 6 inch shells, some large candles and some titanium salutes (2-inch shells that make a bright flash and a VERY large bang).

The permit process was uneventful once all the papers (shot list, proof of insurance, copy of my license) were assembled; I was a bit concerned that we'd left it late as I faxed the information I had to the North Vancouver Fire Dept. on the 27th and we didn't get the DCYC paperwork in until the 29th, but the NVFD had everything processed and ready for me to pick up by the 30th -- and since the fireworks also came in that day, I had some extra time to do some prep work on the shells before heading out on the 31st.

Prep work can involve a few different things; for this show it was placing the shells in plastic bags to protect them against inclement weather (if there's any water in the bottom of the mortars it can ruin the shells) and putting bags on the bottoms of the candle tubes for the same reason (candles are held upright by placing them in mortars so if they get wet, they can also be ruined). I also placed foil over the tops of the candles to ensure that any sparks falling on them wouldn't set them off prematurely. Here are some pictures of the shells and candles before and after prep:

Once the prep work was complete I put everything back in the boxes, taped them shut and then wrapped each box in plastic garbage bags for protection, because I knew that traveling by boat might expose the boxes to the elements and I wanted to keep everything dry and safe.

I met up with my ride on the afternoon of the 31st and we made the 45 minute trip to the outstation. After determining where I was to sleep for the night (they put me up on one of the boats; you don't expect people to be partying all night long and then take me back to the marina, do you?), I unloaded the boxes and began work.

There is a balance to the universe; one of the pluses of this particular gig is that they dig in the mortars for me so I don't have to spend hours digging into the hard, rocky ground -- but at the same time, the weather was not very co-operative and due to the drizzling rain and snow I had to work under a tarp.

For those unfamiliar with how a show is loaded, here's a brief description:

1) Shells are loaded into the mortars with the quickmatch hanging out over the top.
2) Foil is placed over the tops of the mortars to keep stray sparks from falling into the tubes and igniting the shells (similar to putting foil on the candles).
3) In wet weather, plastic sheet is then placed over the mortars to keep water out. At first glance it might appear that it would be a problem to have material blocking the shell's access to the air but believe me, there's enough power in the lift charges to allow them to break free and find their way airborne.
4) If the shells are being manually fired (as was the case with most of the show), the quickmatch fuse is tucked up underneath the plastic to keep it dry and it's pulled out just before the show starts; in the case of the titanium salutes they had to be fired electrically so before they were loaded into their tubes I had to insert an electric match into the fuse; e-match is similar to model rocket ignitors except they fire much faster and require less current.

(Side note: In case anyone is wondering why I didn't put the e-match into the salute shell fuses as part of my prep work, that's because transporting shells that have had e-match already installed is Not A Good Thing...it increases the chance of premature firing.)

Since the men who'd dug the mortars in had already placed foil over the tops to keep water out, and since it was a light drizzle, I was able to get away with taking shells from the boxes (said boxes being under a tarp to keep the contents dry), pulling back the foil, dropping the shells and replacing the foil; Once a rack was full I would put the plastic over the top and move on to the next rack. Because I was having to constantly crawl in and out from under the tarp as well as run wire for the 5 salutes and set up my firing box, it took about 3 hours to get everything ready; it was getting dark by then but between my headlamp and a spotlight on one of the boats (Thanks, Alex!) being able to see what I was doing wasn't an issue.

Now comes the worst part of a New Year's Eve show -- the waiting. While everyone else is partying, drinking and having a good time I have to remain sober. Ah, the sacrifices I make for the job...I tried to nap for a bit but it's hard to sleep when you're still thinking of how you're going to fire the show (these shows aren't designed, so it's up to me to work out how I'm going to shoot and in what order -- do I start with something big to get their attention and then move to something small, or...?) but I did manage get a bit of a nap in.

Finally, it was 11:15 and time for me to make a final check and see how things looked; everything seemed to be in place and ready to go.

At 11:45, I went back out and pulled the fuses out from underneath the plastic.

At 11:50, I put on my safety gear (thick cotton packet that buttons up around the neck, safety glasses, hard hat with hearing protection, leather gloves) and positioned myself to begin.

It was at this point that the little annoyances of life began to manifest themselves.

First was the matter of how to ignite the fireworks; I had a propane torch in my gear box but it turned out that neither propane tank had enough fuel to work, or the cold had affected their gas expansion and nothing was coming out...but I had brought some flares along for just such a situation.

The countdown began, and at the stroke of midnight I set off one of the 6 inch shells and ran over to the firing box to set off the salutes...

Nothing -- fucking nothing. Stupid me had left the battery out with the firing box and the cold wasn't allowing it to deliver enough current; I had a spare battery but I couldn't bloody well stop the show to swap it out so I went back to firing everything else; I would worry about setting off the salutes after everything else was gone.

The rest of the show went as well as can be expected when your glasses are fogging up somewhat and you're dashing around from one tube to the other, lighting the fuses and then turning away (even with safety gear you usually don't want to be facing a mortar when a shell is fired), repeat until done. I also had to reload a couple of mortars which is something I usually don't have to do but we were short a couple of tubes -- but I used the candles and their longer display periods to have enough time to reload as required.

The show ran for about 10 minutes and everyone applauded; I then yelled to them to wait a moment while I swapped batteries and fired the salutes. They went off, more applause.

Regulations say that after a show you're need to leave the site vacant for at least 30 minutes before going back out; this is to ensure that there are no hangfires (slow, smouldering match that could cause a shell to not immediately fire). While I didn't have any hangfires, when I went back out to the firing area I noticed that I had one 3 inch shell and one candle that hadn't gone because their fuses had gotten a bit too wet; I peeled back some of the match casing to expose dry fuse, then lit those off. Still more applause!

After everything was done it was a matter of cleanup, which involved picking up as much plastic and foil as possible and placing it, along with the spent candle tubes, in one of the empty boxes and setting it aside for later disposal. After spending another hour or so chatting with everyone I made my way to my berth and got ready for bed. The next morning, I did a final check to make sure there were no unexploded shells left in the mortars (while I had looked the night before, it's standard practice to look again in daylight) and started packing up my gear for the trip home. I caught a ride back and was home by about 2 in the afternoon, had some lunch and watched some TV.

And that is how I spent my New Year's Eve: cold, wet, crouching under a tarp, running around trying to keep things moving while having to deal with a lot of little problems, and at the same time not doing anything stupid that could result in injury or death.

I'm looking forward to next year's show already.