Sunday, May 31, 2009

Vegas Part I

We've been back from our long weekend in Las Vegas for over a week now, and I'm just getting around to writing about it. That's mainly because I'm trying to catch up on the sleep that I missed. The rule is that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and some of it will, but we had a lot of fun and did a lot of cool things, so I'm going to write about it anyway, but I'm going to break it up into a couple of parts. If you want the picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words version, pictures are posted here.

Gail and I went to Vegas once before, back in 2005 for our tenth wedding anniversary. We had a great time, so when some friends decided that they were going down on the long weekend in May, they mentioned it to us. Originally, we figured it would be too expensive so we decided not to go, but then they told us about the deal they had gotten at the MGM Grand – something like $350 for four nights. We priced the Venetian for the same time period: over $1350. We found flights for about $150 each (each way), so we decided to go. How often can you get four days in Vegas for under $1000? Well, obviously you need to add some for food. OK, plus tickets to any shows you want to see. And taxis. And the monorail. And service charges and airport taxes on the airfares. And gondola rides at the Venetian. And car rental to drive to Hoover Dam and the tours of Hoover Dam itself. And souvenirs and gifts for the kids. And of course gambling money. Considering we're going to the UK this summer, and my company has delayed our salary raises for at least three months (assuming there are raises at all this year), and Gail's income has dropped by 5% thanks to her company's salary cuts, well maybe this wasn't such a cheap vacation after all. But hey, it's only money, and we had a lot of fun, so I don't regret it for a second.

The MGM Grand is unbelievably big. There are over 5,000 rooms, a monster casino, sports book, a gift shop and several other shops, five pools and a lazy river, a TV studio, two spas, an arena for boxing and other sporting events and concerts, a monorail station, a theatre showing a Cirque du Soleil show, and countless restaurants and bars. Oh, and a lion enclosure. If you're hungry, you've got your standard Vegas buffet (required by law at all casino resorts, I believe) as well as the Rainforest Cafe, another cafe, a grill, a deli, a sandwich place, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Mexican, two French places, a steak house, a seafood place, and a "California cuisine" place owned by Wolfgang Puck. And if all that's not enough, there are two Starbuck's and a food court with five more places including McDonald's. We arrived on Thursday night, and by the time we left on Monday afternoon, we could usually find our way to where we needed to go without getting lost. But the sheer size of the place meant that it took forever to get anywhere. We stayed at the Mirage last time, and it was also big, but not outrageous. This place was just too big. In contrast, our room was actually quite small, but very nice. It was only the two of us and all we did there was sleep and shower, so we didn't really need any more space.

Since the hotels on the strip are so big (many of them take up a city block each), walking between them can take a long time. Combine that with the zillion-degree temperatures in the summer, and you have a fairly hefty need for a rapid transportation system. So the city has put in a monorail that runs behind the hotels on the east side of the Strip. MGM is the southern-most station, and there are also stops at Bally's, the Flamingo, Harrah's and the Sahara, as well as a couple of stops off the Strip. It's great if you're going, like we did, from MGM up to the Stratosphere, which is about a 6 km walk. It's not cheap – a single ride, regardless of distance, is $5 each, though you can get a day pass for as many rides as you want in a 24-hour period for $13. That turned out to be a better deal for us, and we ended up doing that twice. Apart from the cost, there is another problem with the monorail which involved, again, the size of the hotels. At one point we were headed to Paris, so we took the monorail from MGM to Bally's (right next door to Paris). The elevators to our room were at the front of the MGM, so we had to walk all the way to the back, which was at least five minutes. Then we took the monorail one stop (three or four minutes), then had to walk to the middle of Bally's and over to Paris, which took at least another five minutes. All told it took us about fifteen minutes to get there, at least ten minutes of which was walking. We probably could have walked all the way in that time, so the monorail only saved us a few minutes of walking. Now, we were there in May, so it was pretty hot outside but not unbearable. If it was 105 degrees outside, which is not unlikely in July and August, spending $10 to walk for 15 minutes inside rather than walking for 15 minutes outside might well be worth it.

Coming in our next installment: The Stratosphere and Hoover Dam.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Intro to field lacrosse

I attended my first-ever field lacrosse game tonight at BMO Field in Toronto, as the new Toronto Nationals took on the Chicago Machine. I have been to many box lacrosse* games over the last eight years, including every Toronto Rock home game but one, as well as a number of games in Buffalo and a couple in Rochester, and one or two OLA games too. But until tonight, I was a field virgin. In a nutshell, it was fun, but I wouldn't trade my Rock tickets for Nats tickets. The amount of scoring was about the same, but the pace of the game is slower and I found it less exciting than box lacrosse. It's really the same pace for the most part, but the field is much bigger so regardless of how fast you run, you can't make it from one end to the other in a few seconds and since three defensive players are required to stay on the defensive side, breakaways are just about impossible.

* – Technically, the game played in the NLL is actually indoor lacrosse, not box lacrosse. Box is the form played in the OLA, which has minor differences from the NLL game. But for the most part, box and indoor lacrosse are interchangeable.

Biggest complaint: I found it harder to follow the ball. The fact that it was orange helped, but the field is so much bigger than the box floor that if you look away for a second, you lose track of the ball. Maybe what they need is a blue line to appear when the ball is passed and then when someone takes a shot... ah, never mind.

The midfielders have very long sticks, which I assumed were used primarily for long passes, but there were only a handful of those in this game. It didn't really seem to me that the long sticks were much of an advantage.

Cool stuff:

  • The Nationals won! They are now 2-0.
  • A bunch of fans behind us kept calling out to Colin Doyle. In the fourth quarter, Colin acknowledged them with big smiles and waves. It's unlikely San Jose would do it, but there isn't a player on the Rock roster that I wouldn't trade to get Doyle back in a Rock uniform.
  • The Nationals team is a total powerhouse of NLL players. Gait, Iannucci, Dawson, Doyle, Zywicki, Williams, Grant, Thomson, Snider, Prout, Brodie Merrill, Point, Powless, Vyse... that's ten MVP awards, four rookie of the year awards, countless scoring titles, and along with Patrick Merrill and Jordan Hall, four first-overall draft picks. Not to mention that they have Ken Montour, the reigning NLL goalie of the year, as well as Matt Vinc, another standout NLL goalie, and neither of them is a goaltender for the Nats.
  • Goalies don't look any different from any other player on the field apart from the big pool-skimmer stick, and they don't do the stick-head-between-the-legs stance that box goalies do. It always looks to me like a field goalie is just another player standing in the net, looking out-of-place. But those goalies really know what they're doing, and made some pretty impressive stops, including several "how the hell did he stop that?" saves. And in at least a couple of cases, they'd not only leave their crease to play the ball, they'd take it more than halfway upfield. Seems like a dumb idea to me, but hey, I'm the field virgin here, what do I know?

Not so cool stuff:

  • Note to Nationals management: keep the "hosts" away from the booze. The "long pole dancing" thing was silly, and the bit with one of the hosts singing "Summer of '69" with whichever fans wanted to join him was just embarrassing. He may not have been, but it really did look like he was hammered.
  • The one-page "program" that they gave out listed the roster of both teams on one side, and has a big picture of Nationals player Shawn Williams on the other side. But Williams didn't play in the game. He was told that of the twelve games in the season, he'd play six of them, because they have such a large roster. But he wasn't told this until after the first game last weekend, in which he did play. He said that if he'd known he'd be a scratch in this game, he wouldn't have played in the first one. Shawn has lots of family in and around Toronto, so I'm sure he would have liked to play in this game.
  • I need to learn the game better. There were a number of times that the play was stopped, the ref went to talk to someone, and then play resumed, with the player who had the ball before retaining possession. I couldn't figure out why the play was stopped in the first place. And when the ball was thrown out of bounds, it seemed that the person nearest the ball when it went out was awarded the ball, regardless of who threw it. This doesn't make sense to me, but it explains why some players would go sprinting towards the line (not always towards the ball) when they had no chance of stopping the ball from going out.
  • Looking at the scoreboard and seeing that it was the 4th half of the game just screamed "FAIL". Surely that word on the scoreboard can be changed from "Half" to "Quarter".

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Chrome vs. Firefox

I have been a loyal Firefox user since version 0.8 or so, back in 2004 when it was still known as Firebird. When designing my web sites, I used Firefox exclusively, and before publishing them, I frequently forgot to make sure they worked properly in IE, which they usually didn't because I used CSS standards (parts of which are either ignored or implemented wrong by IE) as much as possible. I installed the Adblock add-on the moment I heard about it, and have seen very few internet ads since then. It's been great. There were only two major drawbacks to using Firefox:

  1. Some websites didn't work properly in Firefox, either because they use evil ActiveX controls which only work on IE, or because they were simply developed using IE and other browsers were ignored. Notably, Sybase's internal vacation request and scheduling system uses ActiveX so I have to use IE for that. Both of these issues are becoming less and less prevalent as browsers such as Firefox, Safari, Opera, and Chrome gain market share.
  2. Firefox uses a boatload of memory. I would sometimes have a Firefox window open with only one tab (usually showing my gmail inbox), and Task Manager would tell me it was using well over 200 MB of RAM.

Then Google Chrome was released, with the promise of much faster rendering and Javascript. I considered trying it out, but read a couple of reviews at the time saying that it was not bad, but not really "ready for prime time". In recent weeks, I've read more reviews from people who have made the switch and are quite impressed with Chrome. A few weeks ago, after hearing from yet another source that Chrome used much less memory than Firefox, I decided to give it a try. Since then, I have used Chrome almost exclusively. I've noticed a few differences, both pro and con.

Advantages of Chrome

  1. Everything is faster. In particular, Javascript is much faster. Gmail is very snappy, and other sites that are heavy on the Javascript (like Stack Overflow) are also faster.
  2. Chrome uses much less memory. Right now, I have one Chrome window open, with one tab showing my gmail inbox. There are four (?) Chrome processes running, using a total of 43 MB of RAM. I've seen other times where I have a couple of tabs open, and there are seven or eight Chrome processes running. But the total amount of memory they're using is still less than one Firefox.
  3. A problem in one tab that causes a crash will only cause that tab to vanish, not the whole application. I've only seen this happen once, and actually the tab didn't vanish at all – the video that was supposed to play in it never did, but Chrome kept right on truckin' along. Firefox doesn't crash that often for me either, but when it does, the whole thing goes away.
  4. Some sites (like Google Reader or, again, Stack Overflow) have "tooltips" that don't seem to work in Firefox, but do in Chrome and IE.
  5. Text areas are always resizable. Very nice.
  6. Chrome detects known malware sites and prevents you from going there and even from loading third-party javascript from them, though you can bypass the protection if you really want to. Firefox, without NoScript, will happily serve you up any nasty Javascript it's told to.

Advantages of Firefox

  1. Firefox has a rich community of add-ons. For Chrome it's already begun with user scripts, but there aren't many of them and it's a lot more manual work to install them, and you also have to use the less-stable beta branch version of Chrome. I'm sure that in future versions there will be automated installation and lots more to choose from, but for now Firefox wins. Some of the ones I love that have no equivalent in Chrome (yet):
    • NoScript disables Javascript entirely unless you manually enable it for the particular site you are on. I have it set so that sites I frequently visit have Javascript enabled just enough for the site to work. If a site uses its own stuff plus something from, the doubleclick stuff is disabled. AFAIK, there's no way to do this in Chrome, so I probably have doubleclick cookies on my machine now. Damn those doubleclick people, damn them all to hell. (Yes I know they're now Google people)
    • AdBlock for Firefox rocks. So much so that I've linked to it twice in this article. With Chrome, I am seeing ads on pages that I never knew had ads. After a while I discovered a similar thing for Chrome called AdSweep, which worked pretty well, though I saw more ads than I did with Firefox. Unfortunately, AdSweep requires the beta branch, as I mentioned above.
    • XMarks (formerly FoxMarks) synchronizes your bookmarks and saved passwords between instances of Firefox (i.e. work and home). It doesn't yet exist for Chrome.
  2. Firefox can re-open tabs that have been accidentally closed. I haven't found a way to do that with Chrome. It is possible in Chrome, though not exactly intuitive. When you open a new tab, it shows you some frequently-viewed and recently-viewed pages, and there's also a list of "recently closed" pages.
  3. Firefox supports keymarks in their bookmarks, which are just shortcuts. For example, I can enter "<Ctrl-L>fb<enter>" to go to Chrome doesn't support these directly, but does a very fast search (hey, it's Google) on your bookmarks and brings up bookmarks that match what you've typed in the bar. However, Firefox keymarks supports parameters, so I can do a search on IMDB by saving a bookmark like ";s=all". The %s is replaced with the parameter you enter, so if I enter "imdb glitter" in the address bar, it does an IMDB search on the Mariah Carey movie "Glitter", if for some reason I wanted to. Chrome seems to understand "imdb" and immediately does an IMDB search, so that's fine, but I have another one that accesses our internal bug tracking web site (called iReport). If I enter "ir 12345" in the Firefox address bar, the bookmark will create the proper URL to take me to the web page for iReport issue #12345. Doing the same on the Chrome address bar ignores the ir bookmark and does a Google search, which obviously doesn't do what I want.
  4. In Firefox, there is a separate downloads window which lists what's being (and has been) downloaded. If you're downloading something large, you can minimize the actual browser window and just leave the downloads window open and watch the progress that way. You can even minimize the downloads window and watch the title of the button in the taskbar, since the title of the window contains the percentage complete. Very handy. In Chrome, it seems to be associated with the tab that started the download. I downloaded a fairly large file earlier today using Chrome, and the only way to see the progress of the download was to have the browser open to the page where I started the download. You can create a tab that shows the download progress, but you still need the entire browser window open.
  5. Firefox allows you to select some text on the web page and "View selection source", which is easier when debugging problems then downloading the entire source for the page and searching through it. No such option on Chrome.
  6. Firefox has the "Manage bookmarks" window which makes dealing with bookmarks easy. With Chrome, you have to do it one at a time, and there's no way to sort bookmarks. However, I use a lot, so that's where the majority of my bookmarks are anyway.
  7. On at least one message board site, the keyboard shortcuts to add italic and bold indicators to text don't work on Chrome.

The result

I'm sticking with Chrome. There seem to be more advantages to Firefox but the only one that was really significant to me is NoScript, and many of the rest are fairly simple things that will likely be fixed before long (I know the sorting bookmarks one is already fixed, just not released yet). I'm generally pretty careful about what web sites I visit – if a site is in any way questionable, I don't visit it at work, and at home I'm protected by OpenDNS, which I have configured to completely block all porn sites as well as known phishing and adware sites. Chrome's built-in protection is nice too.

Other than that, the Firefox advantages are either no big deal or easily worked around. The speed of Chrome (not just browsing speed, but the overall speed of my machine is faster without Firefox using 1/4 of my RAM) is just too big of a win.

Update: I revisited this comparison six months later and posted a updated review.

NLL Playoff Picks: Championship Game

I'm now 5-for-6 in playoff game predictions, having missed the Buffalo-New York game last weekend but getting the Calgary-San Jose game right. Luckily I didn't post score predictions because I would have been way wrong. Who could have predicted 5 goals for San Jose (who scored 20 last week) and only 3 for Buffalo, including 0 for Steenhuis and Tavares? Who could have predicted Matt King shutting out San Jose for three periods and outscoring Colin Doyle and his goal being the game-winner?

New York vs. Calgary

Given the goaltending performances last week, we might be looking at a 3-2 game, which is unheard of in lacrosse. Then again, 17-5 and 9-3 scores are pretty unheard of anyway, and we had both of those last week. Even as good as Vinc was last week and as strong an offensive team as the Titans are, I don't think they're a match for Calgary. As long as Calgary doesn't get too cocky after last weekend's blowout, the Championship is theirs to lose.

Prediction: Calgary

Unfortunately, I will be vacationing in Las Vegas this weekend, so I won't be able to watch the game. Well, perhaps "unfortunately" is the wrong word to use here.

Friday, May 08, 2009

NLL Playoff Picks – Round 2

Since I was four out of four in my first round picks (did I mention that already?), I will stick with the picks I already made for the second round as well.


Buffalo vs. New York

Second verse, same as the first. The Bandits are hungry to repeat as champions, and I just don't see New York being able to stop them (though I think Calgary has a good chance). It won't be a blowout, but I don't think it'll be that close either.

Prediction: Buffalo


San Jose vs. Calgary

I said in the first round picks that I don't like betting against Colin Doyle in the playoffs, but this Calgary team is just too strong. The Stealth have too many rookies to go all the way this year, but if they can get off to a good start next year, the Stealth could be the team to beat next year.

Prediction: Calgary

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Dirty old man

When I got up this morning, I weighed myself. 174.5. Then I had a shower and right afterwards (my hair was still wet), I weighed myself again. 173.5.

The logical conclusion? The shower removed one pound of dirt from my body. Maybe morning breath isn't my biggest problem.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Published again

My letter to the editor was published in today's Spectator. I've had one other letter published in the Spec, and one in the Flamborough Review a few years ago too.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

NLL First Round Results

So... let's see how accurate my first round predictions were:

Game Prediction Actual result
Rochester – New York "New York in a close one" New York won in overtime
Boston – Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo won
Colorado – Calgary Calgary Calgary won
San Jose – Portland San Jose San Jose won

So that would be, let's see here... carry the one... four for four. A perfect record. I even called the overtime game.

Just sayin'.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Soccer doesn't always suck

I'm not a big soccer fan. I enjoy watching my kids' games, but other than that, I just don't watch it. I've tried to get into it when the World Cup is on, figuring that if I'm ever going to watch soccer, I may as well watch these guys since they're the best in the world. But I just can't. Maybe it's because I don't have a rooting interest – neither Canada (my home country) nor Scotland (that of my parents), are ever in the running so I generally don't care who wins. I also find that soccer just isn't that exciting a game to watch on TV, and the fact that soccer players are the worst divers I've seen in any sport doesn't help. But when I got the opportunity to get some tickets to last weekend's Toronto FC game match, I took advantage of it and got tickets for me and the boys – Gail was away for the weekend or she would have come too.

I've seen a number of musical groups live that I really enjoyed, but I don't listen to them otherwise. Leahy is a good example Рthey are fantastically talented musicians and I really enjoyed watching them play, even though it's not generally my kind of music. At the show I got all excited and I bought a CD of theirs, but I almost never listen to it. Similarly, I rarely listen to the soundtrack of Les Mis̩rables, which is one of my favourite musicals. It seems universally true that live music is better than recorded music, and it's similarly true of sports. I can't think of too many sporting events that wouldn't be better to see live than on TV so I figured the same might be true of soccer, and I was right. Maybe it was the rooting interest in the home team, or maybe it was the atmosphere (much louder than a Rock, Jays, or even Leafs game despite being outdoors), or maybe it was surprise at the fact that a sporting event can be exciting despite a single goal over the course of 90+ minutes. Most likely it was a combination of all of these but whatever the reason, I enjoyed the game.

Watching soccer live gives you a better overall view of the plays and how things are set up. It's not just "kick the ball towards the opposing net and hope that either (a) you get a clear shot or (b) one of your teammates randomly ends up in a good spot and he gets a clear shot". Now I'm no idiot, I know that professional soccer isn't like that at all, but on TV, you just don't (or at least I don't) see that as well.

The next time the World Cup rolls around I will, in all likelihood, ignore it again. But if I get another opportunity to see a Toronto FC game, I might just go.