Thursday, July 31, 2008

The VIP Treatment

For my birthday yesterday, Gail took me on a "date" to see The Dark Knight. I'll post a review of the movie itself later (in a word: wow), but right now I want to review the experience. We went to the new Silver City Oakville, which has two "VIP auditoriums". For an extra $5 on top of your regular ticket price, you get some perks:

  • access to a licensed bar before your show
  • a smaller "more intimate" theatre (though with the same size screen)
  • digital picture and sound
  • assigned seating
  • leather seats that are very comfy
  • wider armrests between seats (convenient because the guy sitting next to me must have been at least 350 lbs)
  • in-seat service before the movie starts
  • nobody under 19 allowed in (because it's licensed), so you don't get those noisy teenagers who won't stay off my lawn

Gail was sure that she saw a description of this service somewhere and it said that there were no ads before the movie, but there were. I couldn't find a description of the VIP thing anywhere on the website, which I thought was rather odd — you'd think they'd want to promote the hell out of this.

This is a brand new service, I think — the Oakville theatre only opened within the last few months, and there's only one other theatre in Canada that does it (downtown Toronto), so they haven't worked out all the kinks. The assigned seating thing was weird because you can't choose your seats when you order the tickets, or even change them once they've been assigned. So if you want to sit in the middle but it assigns you seats 1 and 2, too bad. If you like to sit near the back and it assigns you row A, too bad. However, if it's busy and you need several seats, it's good to know beforehand that you have them all together. Another drawback is that you can't bring alcoholic drinks into the theatre itself, you need to finish them in the bar area. However, they do have a non-alcoholic key lime smoothie thing that was mighty good.

Overall, I was pretty happy with the whole VIP treatment. For an extra $5 each, I wouldn't do it for every movie (plus the theatre is further away from our house), but we do have VIP tickets for The Mummy on Friday.

Update (Aug 2): We saw the Mummy yesterday in the VIP theatre. This time, we didn't have time for dinner beforehand, so we tried out the in-seat ordering thing. I had nachos and Gail had mozzarella sticks and popcorn. It wasn't cheap (something like $27 for those things and a medium Coke), and then when using their fancy wireless technology to place the order, she marked down the wrong seat or wrong theatre or something. They took our order during the previews, and ten minutes into the movie Gail had to go out and ask where our food was. Because they couldn't find us, they just left it sitting on the counter for at least 20 minutes, so my nachos were lukewarm and the melted cheese had re-hardened. Not very appealing. They did upsize our drink and offered to upsize our popcorn as well. I suppose it was one mistake that could happen anywhere, but it'll probably be a while before we do that again.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

France by the numbers

KM flownabout 6000 each way
KM driven2050
Different hotels5
Nights on plane1
Nights in hotels15
Pictures taken1868
Size of pictures taken5.265 GB
Videos taken139
Size of videos taken4.377 GB

Times we got rained on while visiting a chateau 3
Times we got rained on while not visiting a chateau 0
Times we walked into a restaurant in the middle of the day or evening only to be told they were closedat least 3
Number of thousand-year-old buildings we drove by and didn't even bother looking atcountless
Number of thousand-year-old buildings in all of North America 0
Price for a litre of gas in Franceabout 1€45 (~$2.30)
Price for a litre of gas in Canadaabout $1.35
Average price for a bottle of Coke in a restaurant in France4€ (~$6.40)
Average price for a bottle of Coke in a restaurant in Canada$2.50
Average difference in price between a Coke and a beer in a restaurant in France0€50 (~$0.85)
Average difference in price between a Coke and a beer in a restaurant in Canada$3

The Treasure Hunt

The Louvre is probably the most famous art museum in the world, containing the most famous painting in the world and some of the most famous sculptures as well. Jackie, Gail, and I knew that we could walk around there for hours, but we also knew that our boys (and most kids in general) would get pretty bored pretty quickly just looking at paintings and sculptures. So we had a clever plan to make it fun for them so we didn't have to listen to "Can we leave yet?" all day — We turned it into a treasure hunt. (We can't take credit for this plan, the former vice-principal at the boys' school told us that this is what they did.)

Once we bought our tickets, our first stop was the gift shop, where we asked each of the boys to choose two of the many postcards representing works contained in the Louvre. They each chose a couple, Gail and I each chose one (though I'm wondering if we never actually bought mine, because I can't find it), and we began our hunt. Of course, we walked slowly while searching so that we could look at the other works as well.

One of the first things we saw was Winged Victory, which is a 2200-year-old sculpture found in Greece. I'm not sure what it is about this piece, but I was really impressed with it, and Ryan really liked it as well. He couldn't get over the fact that it was over two thousand years old.

We spent a long time in the Grande Galerie, which is a huge hallway containing zillions of Italian paintings. The Mona Lisa is in a room just off of this hallway, and it was the second piece we found on our hunt. Mona is smaller than one might think, and because it's behind a big sheet of plexiglass, it's hard to take a good picture of it. I must have taken ten pictures from various different angles to try and minimize the glare from the plexiglass. I even took one with the flash on (a no-no according to the sign, but lots of other people were doing it too), but it turned out worse than the other ones.

At the end of the Grande Galerie were a few rooms containing Spanish paintings, and this is where we found the first postcard, one of Ryan's. All the rest of the paintings were by French artists, so we headed over to where the French paintings were. We wandered around there for a while and the only one we found was mine. We then found a section that contained more French paintings but was closed to the public that day. We were disappointed, since we figured that this room is probably where the rest of our postcards were, so we asked the security guard if they were indeed in the closed section. He looked at the pictures, and said no, these particular ones were in a gallery of larger paintings on a different floor. We made our way down there, and hit the jackpot. First off, we were amazed by the size of these pieces. There were paintings in there that must have been fifteen feet high and at least twice that wide. As we were admiring the biggest one, Nicky pointed out his picture of Napoleon, and then we noticed his other one just down from that one, then Gail's Jeanne d'Arc in one corner, and finally Ryan's tigers in another corner. Of the six postcards we chose at the gift shop, four of the corresponding paintings were in the same room. Considering how many paintings are in the Louvre, we were blown away by this. Of course, the vast majority of the works in the Louvre are not available on postcards in the gift shop, so it's not like we picked six out of 35,000 and four of them were together.

One thing we found that was a little surprising was that the boys were not just looking for paintings that matched their postcards, they were actually looking at the paintings. There were a number of times that one or both of the boys would ask about who was in a painting, or why they painted whatever it was. There were a number of paintings of various people holding the head of John the Baptist. (Note that the link is to a painting that is supposed to be in the National Gallery in London, but I'm sure we saw it in the Louvre. Perhaps it was a copy.) I couldn't explain the significance of that, but Ryan thought it was cool. There was one of David fighting Goliath where the artist had painted the same scene from two different angles, and both boys enjoyed walking in circles around the two paintings comparing one with the other. And Ryan mentioned the other day that there were a lot of paintings with naked people. He's right.

We walked around the Louvre for at least three hours, and not once did either of the boys ask if we were done yet, or when we were leaving, or complain about being bored, or anything. Is this because of exceptional parenting — we've taught them not to whine when things aren't going exactly how they want? Well, we are trying to teach them that, but it doesn't always work. Is it because we've taught them to appreciate fine art and so they were simply fascinated the whole time? As I said, this was true to a larger extent than I expected, but for the most part, no. The simple truth is that we found a way to distract them for long enough that we got to see what we wanted. We've found that a good portion of parenting young children is the art of distraction.

BTW, some of our pictures are available at our family website.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Jungle Disk

Now that we have a digital camera, the collection of digital photos on our home computer is growing in leaps and bounds. And as I mentioned before, we have a bunch of home videos as well. If there were a disk crash or a fire or some other disaster, we'd lose everything, so I started looking into backup strategies. A friend of Gail's bought a big USB hard drive and backs everything up to that, but unless you store the drive somewhere else and bring it home occasionally for backups, a fire would destroy both the original and the backup, so that's no good. I could just burn DVDs and then take them to work or something (putting them in the safety deposit box would be the best solution, but I'm way too lazy to do that) but that's a lot of manual labour, and I'd need numerous DVDs to store everything. Too much work, and so I know that I wouldn't do it often enough. What I need is something that does automated backups online so that the files are stored offsite, and the backups can be done automatically so I don't need to remember to do it.

I think I've found the solution thanks to the Security Now! podcast. Steve Gibson talked about a tool called Jungle Disk, which uses Amazon's S3 storage service. It's very cheap — about 15 cents per gigabyte per month, you only pay for what you use, and there are no storage limits. You also pay 10 cents per gigabyte uploaded, and 18 cents per gigabyte downloaded. The Jungle Disk software itself is only $20, comes with free lifetime upgrades and you can install it on multiple machines. Once it's installed and you're hooked up to your Amazon account, Jungle Disk sets up a virtual drive on your Windows machine, so you can copy files to and from the "disk" at will, so if you want, you can essentially use it as a huge USB key (though remember the upload/download fees). It also has fully-functional automated backup software that has strong 256-bit AES encryption (which is why it was mentioned on a security podcast).

The one thing it doesn't do is compress the data. This is supposedly because of a feature they have called block-level updates, where they backup parts of a file individually, so that if your 2GB file changes now and again but only 50 MB of the data is actually changed, it will back up just the changed parts rather than the entire file each time, saving bandwidth. Compressing a file would break this, and it's probably true that the block-level updates save you money in the long run for large frequently-changing files, but for files that never change (like my home videos), compression would be way more useful. Plus, the block-level update feature is only available if you purchase the optional add-on service called "Jungle Disk Plus". Maybe I'll have to set up a cron job (or Windows equivalent) that runs once a week (the night before the backup, probably) and compresses the videos.

The ability to use the Jungle Disk service as a huge USB key is rather nice as well — if I want to transfer a file from work to home, I can just copy it up to my Jungle Disk drive at work, then copy it down at home. I'd have to pay the upload/download costs for that, but depending on the file, it may be worth it. When I'm at home, both my work and home machines use the same wireless router to connect to the internet, but neither can see the other's shares. I don't know why I can't connect them to each other, and neither Gail nor I have any idea how to fix it, though admittedly our research into the problem has been minimal. In the past when I wanted to transfer a file from one machine to the other, I either used a regular USB key or burned a DVD for larger files. This gives me another option.

I wrote this article several weeks ago but never got around to posting it. I just got my first bill from Amazon Web Services for all of $1.87. I don't quite understand it though — it says I'm using 5.305 GB of storage, but uploaded 9.217 GB of data. It backed up all of our France pictures this past weekend, so the next bill will be much higher, but we'll see how much more it is.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Spaghetti Factory incident

I took Ryan to a Rock game back during the winter. It was a Saturday night game, so we went out for dinner (at The Old Spaghetti Factory) with the rest of the Rock gang before the game. Ryan and I got there quite early, so we sat in the lounge with a couple of drinks and watched the hockey game, which was on a TV in the corner. After a minute or two, Ryan stood up and walked over towards the TV. He walked more than half the distance to the TV, so by the time he stopped, he was closer to the TV than he was to me. He walked back, sat down, and told me "It's 4-3 for Detroit". I was stunned. Not because Detroit was winning, but because I could clearly see the score on the TV from where we were sitting.

Gail and I had talked a few times about taking the boys to get their eyes checked, but just never did it. After "The Spaghetti Factory Incident" (with apologies to Guns 'N Roses), I called the optometrist that same week and made appointments for all of us. Gail hadn't had one in a year or so, and I hadn't had one since about a year after my laser eye surgery, which was eight years ago. My eyesight wasn't terrible before my surgery (something like -4.75 to -5.00 in each eye), but Gail is almost blind without her glasses or contacts. She's in the -13.00 to -15.00 range and her grandfather was just as bad, so we kind of figured that the odds of both of our kids growing up with good vision were pretty slim. We were right — Ryan needed glasses. Nicky's vision was smack dab in the middle of the "normal" range for his age group, so that's good. Even after eight years, my overall vision is still better than 20:20, so I'm still very happy with the results of my surgery.

One thing we're very happy about is the greater level of acceptance of kids with glasses than when we were kids. Gail first got glasses in grade two, and vividly remembers constant taunting from other kids; she was called "four-eyes" more often than she could count. I remember feeling sorry for kids that I knew who got glasses because other kids would tease them (I like to think that I didn't partake in the teasing, but I probably did). I didn't start wearing glasses until grade 10, so we were beyond that — at that point they were teasing me because I was a dweeb, not because I wore glasses. The glasses just completed the dweeb ensemble.

Anyway, a few kids in Ryan's class have gotten glasses in the last few years, and nobody gets made fun of. Ryan said that one girl was nervous about getting hers, and the whole class made a point of telling her how great they looked on her. When Ryan found out he had to get glasses, it didn't phase him at all. There was no complaining, no fear, no worries, no problem. He whined more the last time he had to get a haircut. We picked up his glasses a couple of days before we left for France, and he's been doing great with them.

Why Christians are like pickles

This is just too funny. What's the best way to show people what happens when they become Christian and take Jesus into their heart? Why, you electrocute a pickle, of course! Just try to watch this without laughing out loud. I certainly couldn't.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

France: Kudos and complaints

Kudos where they are due:

Snaps to:

  • — They have a bunch of apartments for rent all over Paris. The apartment had a dishwasher, a tiny little washing machine / dryer, fridge, stove and microwave. It was a nice little apartment in a fairly nice area, close to Notre Dame and the beautiful Luxembourg garden. All phone calls (including overseas!) were included in the price.
  • Holiday Inn near Charles de Gaulle — I needed internet access to print boarding passes for the flight home, and the hotel we were staying at (Ibis, see below) had internet access but no printer, so they suggested I go across the street to the Holiday Inn. Internet access is only supposed to be for Holiday Inn guests, but the front desk guy let me in anyway. And the internet card was cheaper than the Ibis. And printing was free. And the lobby was nicer.
  • The car we rented was an Opel Zafira, which is a small mini-van. It had a manual transmission (I'd forgotten how much fun it is to drive stick), and had A/C, cruise control, and rain-sensing windshield wipers. It drove nicely and was very comfortable. We had three travel days where we were in the car for between 6 and 8 hours and nobody complained about getting in the car again the next day.
  • L'OpenTour is a bus line that runs four routes around Paris — buy a ticket, and you can get on and off any of these buses all day, though the two-day pass is an even better deal. The buses are double-decker, and the upper floor is open (i.e. no roof). You get headphones, and there are headphone jacks near every seat where you can hear pre-recorded tours in one of a bunch of languages. The tours were interesting, and the price was pretty good too. In addition to the tours, we ended up using it as public transport for the two days we had tickets. Kudos to the driver as well — he had to drive through an archway at the Louvre and I swear there was less than six inches of clearance on each side of the bus. Everyone on the bus held their breath as we went through.
  • The people in charge of street signs in France. Can you imagine driving around a residential area of Waterloo and seeing signs on every other intersection directing you downtown or to Guelph or Cambridge? Not bloody likely. That's primarily how we got around France. We had a pretty detailed map, and used it to figure out the next semi-major town to look for, and then just followed the signs. We only got lost a couple of times, and then only for a short while. As an aside: roundabouts (traffic circles) are definitely the way to go. People in North America complain about them because they don't understand them, but I love 'em. That said, the six-lane twelve-street one (with no lane markers) around the Arc de Triomphe is frightening.
  • Drivers in Europe (other than the psycho motorcyclists) are vastly superior to North American drivers. Not once in the 2050 km we drove did I get annoyed at the slow driver in front of me who wouldn't move over, because it never happened. (It happens every day during my commute.) Not once was I cut off. Not once did I have to honk at anyone. I was only honked at once and that was my fault.

This next part is what blogging is all about, for those of us who don't get paid for it, anyway: complaining about stuff!

No snaps to:

  • — Before we rented the place we stayed in, we had booked a different place, and by "booked" I mean that we had signed a contract and paid for it. A few weeks before we left, we got an email saying that the person staying in that apartment before us needed to stay an extra day, so we couldn't have it the day we arrive in Paris. We could either stay somewhere else that night or rearrange our flights to arrive the next day. There was no apology, we were just out of luck, despite having signed a contract. We told them that we could not rearrange our flights, and they offered us another place at a bit of a discount (though not much of one). After looking around for other places (from other companies), we found that there was nothing else available, so we took the one they offered. Turned out that the place we got was in a better location anyway so it all worked out, but we were pretty annoyed that they changed our booking on us without even apologizing.
  • Hotel Ibis Roissy — right next to Charles de Gaulle airport. One of the worst hotels I've ever stayed in. Company slogan: "You're near the fuckin' airport, what more do you want?" Have to say that the food in the restaurant was pretty good and not too overpriced, but the rooms were tiny and just awful. The front desk staff, except for the guy who helped me with the internet stuff, was generally unpleasant. Here is an actual conversation between myself and someone at the front desk:
    • Me: Do you know where I need to go to return my rental car?
    • Her: The airport.
    • Me: Well, the airport is a big place.
    • Her: Huh?
    • Me: Where exactly at the airport?
    • Her: Terminal 2.
    If she knew it was terminal 2, why didn't she say so in the first place? And where at terminal 2? Are there signs? At any Canadian hotel, she'd be pulling out a map and showing you precisely where to go.
  • Renaissance Travel — we've dealt with the same travel agent (Tracy) since we booked our honeymoon in Jamaica in 1995, even following her when she moved from one agency to another. Tracy helped us with our trip to Britain in 2000, as well as Vegas in 2005, and a couple of others as well, and we've never paid her a red cent. For this trip, a friend recommended a company in Mississauga that she had dealt with before, and they were supposed to be experts on France. We decided to give them a try even though they charged a $189 fee for their services, but we figured for expert consultation, you have to pay. Colossally bad move on our part. They were certainly experts on being French — the woman we dealt with had an accent and was rude. (Actually, she wasn't rude, just not very helpful, but that doesn't go as well with the joke.) She booked our hotels (except for Paris) and rental car, and did precisely nothing else. We heard about a place called Sarlat near Bordeaux, and how they had some very cool prehistoric caves. I asked Renaissance if they had any information on hotels in Sarlat as well as more information on the caves and other things to do in the area, and received the following two-line email, reproduced here in its entirety:
    • B.W Hotel Le Renoir(Sarlat)
    • Around 105.00eur per night and per room
    ("B.W." means Best Western) This was the kind of extensive information she thought would help our decision making. We almost want to send Tracy an apology card.
  • motorcycle, scooter and sometimes even bicycle riders. In France, two-wheeled vehicles drive anywhere they want, including between lanes and on the sidewalks and shoulder, and can weave among other vehicles at will. Luckily, other vehicles seem to agree with this, and just let them go. (Or perhaps they don't agree but just let them go because the alternative is too dangerous.) It's quite scary sometimes. An experienced French motorcycle rider would find himself honked at every few minutes in Toronto, if he survived that long.
  • annoying beggars in Paris. They would ask if you spoke English, looking like they needed directions, and then hand you a note (in English) which explained how they had recently arrived in Paris from Bosnia, and had a brother with leukemia, and they couldn't afford to get treatment for him. If you waved them off, they would literally beg: "Please can't you help me?" Well, maybe I'd help you if you weren't the fifth Bosnian refugee with a sick brother who's stopped me in the past hour.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Great albums I sometimes forget about II

Another great album I meant to mention before: New Miserable Experience by Gin Blossoms. "Lost Horizons", "Hey Jealousy", "Found Out About You", and "Mrs. Rita" are all great songs, and there isn't really a weak song anywhere. And "Cheatin'" contains one of my favourite lyrics ever: "You can't call it cheatin' 'cause she reminds me of you". The singer has a unique voice; not sure why they never did much after this album.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Nos vacances en France

We returned on Saturday from our wonderful vacation in France. I won't bore you with the day-by-day details, but here it is in a nutshell:

We stayed in an apartment in Paris for a week — saw the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Versailles, Luxembourg garden, and Disneyland Paris. We did a lot of walking, and the metro system is very straightforward and can get you anywhere. Vastly superior to Toronto's public transit system. Paris is an amazing city — you can just feel the history everywhere. I have to say though, while the view from the Eiffel Tower is spectactular, it's also kind of boring, in that the vast majority of the buildings are the same colour (gray) and the same height (five or six stories).

After a week in Paris, we took the high speed train (kind of disappointing — didn't seem much faster than any other train) to Bordeaux where we picked up our rental van. Stayed a couple of days in Bordeaux, and took one day to drive to Perigueux, where Jackie's family originated (Jackie is Gail's stepmother, and she came with us on the trip). We then drove up to Amboise, near Tours. Stayed a couple of days there, mainly driving around various châteaux including the beautiful Château de Chenonceau.

Next we drove up to Saint Malo on the English Channel. Every restaurant in Saint Malo serves seafood of some kind, and the most popular dish seemed to be mussels and french fries. Don't get me wrong, I had them and they're very good (the boys liked them too), but fries seemed like an odd thing to serve with mussels. No vegetables or rice or anything, just a bowl of mussels and a plate of fries. We also drove to nearby Mont Saint Michel, one of the most amazing places I've ever seen. It's just your average monstrous church and abbey built on top of a huge rock on an island surrounded by quicksand. Must have been pretty trivial to build eight hundred years ago.

We also drove to a town (and a château) called Pirou, which is where, we think, my family name comes from. As it turns out, the Pirou family that lived here died out many hundreds of years ago, but one of them fought in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He was subsequently given land in England, where there's now a town called Stoke-Pero. I'm planning on doing some more digging to see if that's where my line of the Perrow family came from. If so, the next time I'm in France, I can go back to Pirou and claim my castle.

Anyway, after three days in Saint Malo, we drove back to Paris and flew home the next day. I think splitting the trip up into two (a week in Paris and a week driving around the countryside) worked out very well — it almost seemed like two different vacations back to back.

Some North American beliefs about France:

  • French people are rude — in general, yes. Of course, there are exceptions; we met a number of very friendly people, but in general, we found that people didn't say "excusez moi" or "pardon" nearly as often as we thought they should have. While waiting in lines, we had people walk through the middle of the lines without saying a word — sometimes physically pushing their way through, and other times pushing a stroller or shopping cart, all silently. Waitresses in Canada would be fired if they treated customers the way we were treated in a couple of places. Well, maybe not fired, but we left a couple of places without leaving a tip of any kind, and I didn't feel the slightest bit guilty.
  • French people are dirty — I did not see any women with underarm hair (though quite honestly, I wasn't looking), but we did notice more B.O. per capita than we're used to here.
  • the Mona Lisa is smaller than you'd expect — yup. I don't know what it is about that smile, but you just find yourself staring at it...
  • France is expensive — yup. 6€ (over $9) for a Coke in a restaurant, gas is almost twice what it is in Canada, and the "American style" breakfast buffet in one of our hotels was 13€ (about $20) per person. Obviously the person who called that "American style" has never been to America. In one of the other hotels, breakfast was 16€50 — we passed on that one.
  • French people eat baguettes — absolutely. We couldn't count the number of people we saw walking around Paris eating a baguette. Nothing on it, not even butter, just a big long hunk of dry bread.
  • French wine is good — dunno, don't drink wine. None of us had even a sip of wine while in France. (Wine drinkers reading this are probably all angry that a French vacation was "wasted" on people who don't drink wine.) There was a beer called 1664 that was pretty good, though.

I have a couple of other postings in the works about our vacation, and I'll try to get some pictures up on our web site soon too.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Blogging fron Paris

In Paris...stop
Sitting in internet café near Notre Dame...stop
Having trouble figuring out this stupid French keyboard...stop
Our apartment is a five minute walk to Notre Dame...stop
Had lunch on Champs-Elysées the other day, 6€ ($9) for a Coke!...stop
Disneyland yesterday, Versailles tomorrow, then Bordeaux on Friday...stop
Must go now, time running out...stop

Not a word in the French press wondering about whether Mats is resigning with the Leafs! Unbelievable!