Monday, August 31, 2009

Star Trek on the BIG screen

We went to see Star Trek at the Omnimax theatre at the Ontario Science Centre last night. (Luckily there was no line-up at the box-office to pick up our tickets or I would be forced to complain again.) We figured it would be very cool on the big screen and it was – the sound was particularly amazing. If you're going to see this at the Science Centre, a piece of advice: however far back you are sitting, you're not far enough back, so move back a row. Another row. Keep goin'. Keep goin'. Another row. What's that? You're at the back of the theatre? OK, well I guess that's far enough.

We got there early to make sure we got a good seat (general admission dontcha know), but it wasn't as full as we expected, so only two people entered the theatre before us. We sat about 3/4 of the way back but the screen is so big that trying to see everything happening on the screen was like watching a tennis match. The first five minutes of the movie were all but unwatchable because of all the on-screen action – there was so much going on that I couldn't focus on anything. After that, the movie slowed down a touch and I got more used to the big screen and from then on it was fine. During some of the faster scenes things got a bit more difficult again, but I got used to it pretty quickly.

The movie itself: amazing. I have always been more of a Next Generation guy – I was never much into the original series, though I liked some of the movies. But the casting on this was really good – it seemed that everyone except Kirk tried to match the speech patterns or mannerisms of the original actors, and I thought they all did a really good job of presenting the characters we know but giving them a slightly different interpretation (Karl Urban as McCoy and Zachary Quinto as Spock are particularly good). Even if you're not a huge Star Trek fan, William Shatner's portrayal of Kirk is very familiar, so it would be hard to play him without just doing a Shatner impersonation, but Chris Pine nailed it. In the very last scene of the film, Pine does channel Shatner to some extent, and Kirk starts to sound similar to the Kirk we all know and make fun of.

Spoiler warning: If you haven't seen the movie, don't read any further.

If they've truly rebooted the series and intend on making more movies following this timeline (and they apparently are), they'll have to be careful, because with the destruction of Vulcan, they've started down a path where no Star Trek series or movie has gone before. There are a lot of situations in the subsequent shows that either take place on Vulcan or assume its existence, and they're all invalid in the new universe. Plus the whole Uhura/Spock relationship thing is new. I guess doing this allows the writers to go off in any direction they want, without having to worry about what happened before / later. The only thing I really hope they don't do is bring Shatner in for a cameo. Nimoy's appearance in this movie was fine, but that should be it. Let's be done with the whole time travel stuff now and just move on from here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy is the new Sarah Connor

First former Maple Leaf Ted "Teeder" Kennedy died two weeks ago. Then Senator Ted Kennedy died yesterday. This has got to be more than just a coincidence. Someone should check the phone book for more Ted Kennedy's and warn them that some cyborg may have come from the future to kill them.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fern 2009

We just returned from Fern Resort where we go every year, and once again, we had a fabulous week. (Here's last year's report.) Some highlights and lowlights:


  • The food was very good, for the most part. The prime rib, pork tenderloin, and lamb medallions were amazing, but the leg of lamb on Wednesday night was just OK. I also had some tandoori salmon that was very good.
  • Jeff and I played tennis every day, and we even won a doubles tournament on Tuesday! Also, during the advanced lesson on Wednesday, we played a "survivor" game, and I won that. But then during the tournament right after that, we won our first match and then got smoked in the next three, mainly because I simply forgot how to hit the ball properly. Many of my shots went into the net or landed way out. Sorry Jeff.
  • Nicky ended up on stage again, playing Deal or No Deal. Last year he took the deal when we wanted him not to, while this year, he turned down every deal (including two that were quite generous) and ended up winning $30. Nothing to sneeze at, but he was offered $42.
  • Canadian children's TV star Daniel Cook was there with his family.
  • I got lots of exercise. Tennis for two hours on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday and one hour on Thursday, I ran 3.7 km on Monday and Wednesday, played beach volleyball, ten holes of golf (Hawk Ridge with Jeff and Jerry) on Tuesday and five (at Fern with Ryan, Jeff, and Jake) on Wednesday, rode pedal carts with Gail and the boys, and and a couple of innings of "mushball" (which is baseball with a soft mushy ball) - I even hit a home run! Oh, and swimming every day.
  • Golf at Hawk Ridge: Jeff, Jerry and I all shot 55 for nine holes. We were allowed to play the 18th hole on the way back to the clubhouse, and Jeff got a six while Jerry and I got sevens, so Jeff ended up the winner.



  • No Jamie Williams this year, as he played on Friday night while we were only there from Sunday to Friday morning.
  • Gail managed to miss archery again this year. No idea why, she just decided not to go. Last year she missed it because of a migraine.
  • I wanted to try water skiing, but never managed to find the time. Similarly, we didn't get out on Jeff's jet-ski either. Jeff did a little bit, but the water was pretty choppy.

We're already booked for next summer, and we're going back this fall too – we booked Hallowe'en weekend. We get 10% off because we're alumni, and they gave us an additional 10% off, plus both kids are free. Obviously the water sports and outdoor pools will be less fun at the end of October, but there will still be lots to do.

Friday, August 14, 2009

I want my ninety cents

The last time I posted about a problem I had with the Ontario Science Centre's web site, I got comments from the webmaster himself, and the problem was resolved quickly. So I'm trying again.

I just ordered tickets to see Star Trek at the Omnimax Theater at the Science Centre in a couple of weeks. The options for getting your tickets are: print the tickets yourself, with a service charge of $0.90, or have have them print the tickets for you and hold them at the will-call window for free. This of course makes no sense – somebody has to print the tickets, so either I pay for the privilege of doing the work myself (calling it a "service charge" when I'm the one doing the work is amusing), or I give them nothing to do the work for me. Anyway, I happen to be doing this at home on my work laptop, which means I can't get to the printer upstairs. (I'm sure there's a way to do it but I've never been able to figure it out., here I come!) So I decide to take the free option and have them print my tickets. When I get the final "this has been charged to your credit card" page, I see that I was charged the $0.90 anyway. Well, I'm against paying to print my own tickets on principle anyway, so I'm certainly not going to pay the fee to not have this service. So I decide to call the box office.

First off, they list the opening days and hours and website and stuff before listing the options. Advice: nuke that crap and have a "for opening hours, press 1" option. Secondly, the "stay on the line to speak to a representative" option punts you off to their directory, where the options are:

If you know the person's name or number, please press 1. For additional information, please press 9.

Pressing 9 boots you back out to the main recording, where you have to listen to the days and hours and website info again. Now, this is at 8:30 on a Friday night, so it's highly possible that the box office is closed (I don't know if the box office has the same hours as the Science Centre itself). But in that case, they should have a recording saying that the place is closed rather than pushing you off to another recording, especially since this was the "to speak to a representative" option. If there's no representative, don't list that option!

The original overcharge of 90 cents was likely a tiny oversight, no big deal. But someone designed that phone system, and that person needs to be punished – perhaps they should be forced to actually use it.

Update: Once again, the Science Centre people have responded quickly. Within a few days of originally posting this, I got a call from Bob, the customer service manager, who recognized the problem and told me that they are in the process of changing both their phone system and their ticket printing system. He told me that he would refund my ninety cents and assured me that with their new system, there would be no charge for printing tickets yourself. Again, major kudos to Bob and the Science Centre folks for responding to me directly and addressing the problems, however minor they may be.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

But I bet it's fast over a 2400 baud modem

I listen to TWiT every week and Jason Calacanis is a regular guest (though rarely when Chauncey John C. Dvorak is on). The guy knows the tech industry inside out and backwards and is an astute businessman, and he's not afraid to air his opinions on anything (which is probably why he and Dvorak don't seem to get along – they both have strong "I'm right and you're an idiot" beliefs). Calacanis seems to be one of those love-him-or-hate-him kind of guys, though I keep flip-flopping. He can sometimes be an annoying blowhard while other times be one of the most insightful tech guys around. I always enjoy TWiT when he's on though since he's always entertaining; he does a spot-on Christopher Walken impression.

He even showed up on a StackOverflow podcast a little while ago and spent the entire hour begin clever and insightful, so I'm wondering if the blowhard is kind of a persona that gets people talking about him – he certainly seems to subscribe to the old mantra "I don't care what you're saying about me, as long as you're saying something".

He posted something on Twitter the other day telling people about his email list. Forget the irony of one of the pioneers of blogging using a mailing list. The really ironic thing about this is that the page to sign up for his mailing list is so 1998. No Javascript, no Flash or Silverlight, no images, doesn't even use CSS. It's just a very basic HTML 3 page with a couple of basic forms. It even uses <FONT> and other UPPERCASE TAGS just like we did back in those early days of the web. Now granted, Jason didn't create the page himself or anything, it looks like he's just using some existing mailing list site to run things for him. This guy has his finger on the pulse of the technology industry – having him use a mailing list rather than a blog is a little confusing, but him agreeing to use this terribly dated web page to do it is completely inexplicable.

Technology in sports

There has been a lot of talk recently about the new swimsuits that are being used in the World Swimming Championships. They apparently make you more buoyant and therefore reduce drag, making you swim faster. An astonishing number of world records have been broken at these championships, and people are beating their own personal best times all over the place. In some cases, records are being beaten by a full second or more, in a sport where hundredths of seconds aren't always accurate enough to determine the winner (remember Michael Phelps in the 100m butterfly at the Beijing Olympics?) and I heard about one guy who broke his own personal best in one race by four seconds. Many swimming enthusiasts are going apeshit over this, saying that this is making a mockery of the sport. Why? If the suits are available to all of the swimmers, then why is this unfair? It's not like the suit has a motor on it, it's still the swimmer doing the work. If two swimmers both have the new suit on, then the suit helps them both equally and we're back to skill against skill. What's the problem here?

Technology improvements have affected every sport. Hockey players shoot the puck much faster with composite sticks than with the old wooden ones. The latest skate technology allows skaters (and hockey players) to skate faster. Skis are better. Baseball gloves and bats are better. Tennis racquets are better. Bicycles are better. Golf clubs (and balls) are better. Even shoes are better. Now we have better swimsuits that allow faster swimmers and just because these changes are more dramatic than in other sports, it's unfair?

Obviously I don't have a problem with using technology to your advantage in sport. But aren't pharmaceuticals a form of technology? What makes them different? Using a graphite oversized tennis racquet instead of an old wooden one allows you to hit the ball faster without working any harder, so what's wrong with using a chemical supplement to enhance your body to allow you to do the same thing? Perhaps it's the safety aspect – steroids in particular can cause all kinds of health problems if they are overused or misused. But performing in sports at a high level is not without risk anyway – baseball players get hit by 95 mph pitches all the time, cyclists ride at breakneck speeds down hills and crashes happen frequently, and concussions are commonplace throughout many contact sports. These are just risks that athletes implicitly agree to when they perform at that level.

I thought that maybe the fundamental difference is that in one case you're using technology to improve sports equipment, whereas in the other case you're using technology to improve the athlete. Well, there have been many advances in training, exercise, and nutrition over the last, say, fifty years that are being used to improve the athlete as well. Using a new training regimen and watching what you eat, an athlete could become stronger or more flexible or just fitter overall with less work than they could have fifty years ago, so we are using technology to improve the athlete. They say Babe Ruth lived on a diet of burgers and beer – just think of how he would have played if he'd hit the gym several times a week and worked with a personal trainer who kept him on a strict diet.

I can't explain why drugs seem to have different rules than other forms of technology when it comes to improving the performance of athletes. They just do.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

We'll take Rios, do you want a ham sandwich in return? No thanks, I'm not hungry.

The Jays let Alex Rios go the other day, and by "let go", I mean "let go". They got nothing back for him, they just put this 28-year-old speedy power-hitting great defensive outfielder on waivers and watched Chicago pick him up. There are those who have said this is a great move because it frees up some money, but looking at the team now, what's the best thing they could do with that money? Find a young speedy power-hitting great defensive outfielder. Sorry José Bautista, but you're just not going to be the starting right fielder for the Jays World Series run next year.

J.P.'s strategy confuses me. He didn't trade Roy Halladay because the offers he got weren't enough, and he wants to keep him for the playoff run next year. Romero is blossoming nicely as is Brett Cecil, and if Marcum, Litch, and Janssen return from injury (from what I've heard, McGowan's return is unlikely, and it's possible he may never pitch again), we could have a seriously good pitching staff. Rolen wanted out so we got a couple of young pitchers for him – that's great, but now we need to find a full-time third baseman. Sorry Edwin Encarnación, but you're just not going to be the starting third baseman for the Jays World Series run next year. So if 2010 is the year of the World Series drive, why dump Rios now? Ricciardi has said that this was not a salary dump, but what other explanation is there? Sure Rios isn't having an MVP season, but he's not having a terrible year - it's not Vernon Wells bad. But instead of working on getting a third-baseman, Ricciardi dumps Rios, so now we need a third baseman and a right fielder. Rios was making some good coin (and yes, I agree he's overpaid given his performance this year and last), but can Ricciardi get a starting third baseman and an outfielder that's remotely comparable to Rios and pay both of them with Rios's salary? Perhaps Ricciardi believes Travis Snider will be ready next year and so all he needs is a 3rd baseman. So why is Snider still playing in Las Vegas? Shouldn't they be giving him as many major league at-bats as possible? Well, he has been injured for much of this season and so perhaps he needs the rehab. But then it's a bit risky to bet the farm on his being able to be a starting outfielder at the major league level next season. Plus he's a left fielder, as is Adam Lind. Who's playing right?

Some J.P. apologists on Twitter are saying that this is a good move because it gets rid of a bad contract. But didn't J.P. give Rios the contract in the first place? You bring a player through your minor league system, watch as he blossoms into a bona fide star player and give him a rich contract, then a couple of years later let him go for nothing because he's too expensive. And J.P. is hailed as a genius for getting out from under a contract that he created. I don't get it. J.P. said that he talked trade with Chicago for a while and couldn't come up with anything. I guess Chicago never considered "Tell you what - you give us Rios and we'll give you nothing. How's that?" Obviously Ricciardi would have jumped at that deal – and eventually did.

Update: The Jays called up Randy Ruiz from Syracuse Las Vegas to take Rios's spot and what does he do? Hits a home run in his second at-bat as a Blue Jay. Problem solved!

Saturday, August 08, 2009

UK 2009: Kudos and complaints

Similar to what I did for our trip to France, here are some positive and negative experiences:

Snaps to:

  • Toyota, for making the Avensis, which we drove around Scotland. It was big without feeling like a bus and was exceptionally comfortable. When we arrived home, I got in our 2007 Pontiac Montana SV6 with leather seats (which I've always thought was quite comfortable), and the first thing I thought was "I want my Toyota back". It was a pleasure to drive too – it had lots of power, handled very nicely, and had great brakes. A number of times I had to hit the brakes hard for an emergency "Oh crap I need to turn here" turn and despite being in rainy Scotland, I never skidded once. Only minor complaint: our particular vehicle didn't have cruise control, but with the windy roads, there were only a handful of places where I could have used it anyway.
  • our friends Sara and Jonathan, for lending us their GPS unit with UK maps. It was an absolute godsend and I will never ever ever ever ever rent a car again without a GPS.
  • The Original Tour, a open-top double-decker bus tour of London. We did this in Paris as well – once you have your ticket, you can get on and off the bus as much as you want for 24 hours. There are six different areas covered by busses, and each bus has headphone jacks where you can plug in headphones (supplied) to hear a recorded commentary in multiple languages. Some tours have a live tour guide giving commentary as well, and it goes pretty much everywhere.
  • Irn Bru – the most popular Scottish soft drink. Similar to cream soda but with a unique taste all its own. Yum.
  • The B&B's we stayed at, all of which were cute and welcoming: Dalshian House in Pitlochry, Dunlichity House near Inverness, and Kilmalyn Guest House near Fort William.
  • The Urquhart Caledonian hotel in Portree, which was a very nice place with very warm and friendly people.
  • The Royal Terrace Hotel in Edinburgh. Beautiful hotel, great location, huge comfortable room, reasonably priced.


No snaps to:

  • – we tried to book an apartment in London through them. I booked the apartment through their web site on May 1, and got an email on May 2 saying that we were confirmed. Then on May 5, three days later, I got an email saying that my credit card had been declined. I immediately replied, telling them that I was going to call the bank to see what was going on. I couldn't remember whether I had use my card or Gail's, so I called them both to make sure everything was OK, and neither one had any record of a declined transaction. I figured that I must have made a typo when entering my credit card number, so I went back to the site and did everything again, double-checking all the card numbers. The next day, I was notified that the apartment I wanted was no longer available. Even though they knew that I wanted the apartment, they did not reserve it for me and someone else grabbed it.
  • Heathrow airport – things went generally pretty smoothly at Heathrow; I only had a couple of minor issues, efficiency being the main one. Without going into all the details here, we went through security a couple more times than I thought was necessary. Also, the things that they do and don't allow still baffles me. They tore Ryan's backpack apart because they saw something weird on the scanner, and it turned out to be the bottle containing his eyeglass cleaning solution. They also told Gail that her contact lens solution was not allowed because the bottle was too big. They let the glasses cleaner through in a separate bag, but Gail had to throw her contact solution out. This, however, was on our flight home, which means that both of these bottles had already flown, in carry-on bags, from Toronto to London, London to Edinburgh, and then Edinburgh back to London. Previous security people thought they were safe enough on those flights, but not the one from London back to Toronto. In the US, the FAA specifically exempts contact lens solution from the 100 mL restriction and as I said they allowed it on the other flights, so I don't understand.
  • North American car makers. Why is the "express down" feature only on the driver's window, and why is there no "express up" feature? On the Toyota we had this time and the Opel we had in France last year, all the windows have both express down and express up. Even the car we had in England nine years ago had this feature, though it was a Mercedes.
  • Roadchef restaurant next door to the Premier Inn in Hamilton. I wrote about this in the Larkhall entry, but in a nutshell: the food was decent but overpriced, the service was less than impressive, and the whole place could have used a serious clean. The Premier Inn itself was fine – the room wasn't gorgeous, but functional and very cheap, and the people were friendly. It was just the restaurant that was a hole.
  • Update: Driving home in the rain tonight reminded me of another one, this one also about North American car makers. Our car in the UK had three windshield wiper modes – I don't remember what they were called, but I'll call them Auto, Normal, and Fast. Normal and Fast are pretty self-explanatory, but Auto was awesome. It detected how wet your windshield was and adjusted the wiper frequency accordingly. The harder it rained, the more frequently they went. If the rain got lighter, the wipers went less often. If it stopped raining, the wipers stopped. If it started raining again an hour later, they started up again. I put the wipers on auto on our second day with the car and didn't touch them again for days, whether it was raining or not. More useful and proven technology that is inexplicably missing from North American cars.

UK 2009: By the numbers

KM flown 5730 Toronto to London,
535 London to Edinburgh,
12530 total
KM driven 1050
Different hotels 6
Nights on plane 1
Nights in hotels 17
Pictures taken 2201
Size of pictures taken 5.53 GB
Videos taken 82
Size of videos taken 6.75 GB
Number of aunts, uncles, and cousins of mine we saw 29

Amount we paid for parking at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh

about £5 ($9)

Amount we paid for parking at all other attractions (castles, Falkirk wheel, Loch Ness exhibit, etc.) combined


Amount we paid for ~7 hours public parking during the day in Edinburgh £19 ($34)
Number of times we did laundry 2
Amount we spent on laundry about £25 ($44)
Price for a litre of gas in Scotland about £1.05 (~$1.86)
Price for a litre of gas in Canada about $0.95
Number of sheep we saw countless
Number of highland cows we saw 1
Number of Loch Ness monsters we saw on T-shirts, key chains, pencils and other assorted trinkets countless
Number of actual Loch Ness monsters we saw 0

Friday, August 07, 2009

UK 2009: Larkhall and Edinburgh

This is the third of five articles I am writing about our UK trip. The first is here, and the second is here. As I mentioned before, I'm putting in a fair amount of detail, but I'm mainly doing it for my own reference in the future.

Note that if you're reading this through Facebook, you might want to click on the "View Original Post" link at the bottom to view it directly on my blog. Facebook messes up some of the formatting.


July 11

When I reserved the rooms at the Premier Inn (weeks before the trip), they gave me the option to buy breakfast at a discount as well. For £7.50 each, Gail and I got vouchers worth £10 each, and the kids each got a £10 voucher for free. This seemed kind of expensive (£15 = $30/day for breakfast), but I figured (a) it's a hotel so it's going to be expensive regardless, and (b) this will save us having to go searching for breakfast every morning. Breakfast wasn't actually at the hotel, it was at a place called Roadchef, right next door. It certainly ended up being convenient, but in retrospect, I'm not sure I'd do it again. Remember this the hotel/restaurant is at a service centre just off the motorway, so the vast majority of their business consists of travellers who may never set foot in the place again. They're not overly interested in repeat business, and it showed. The food was decent enough, though (not surprisingly) overpriced. They had a little serve-yourself cereal area, but three of the four mornings we ate there I had to ask for bowls because there were none there. Many of the staff acted as though our presence was pulling them away from something they'd rather be doing. The silverware was in little baskets and rather than just grabbing four forks and knives, I had to get them one at a time and make sure there was no food still stuck to them – much of the time, there was. The tables were all sticky but I figured they were just cheap and old... until we spilled something. Once I wiped up the spill with a napkin, that part of the table wasn't sticky anymore. Ewwww.

After breakfast, we went to see Aunt Sandra (my mother's sister, in case you're curious) again, and she led us out to her little "shop", Alexandra's, where she sells jewellery. It isn't really a shop at all but a booth in a garden centre, but she sells some pretty nice stuff and Gail had a blast looking over everything and deciding what to buy as gifts and what to buy for herself. Aunt Sandra wanted to give us a huge discount but Gail wouldn't hear of it, so they had a bit of a tussle over how much we were going to pay for everything. They eventually settled on a price, and we went back to her place for lunch. During lunch, Aunt Sandra got a call from her son Ian, who wanted to speak to me. He and his wife Lesley were heading out to the Hamilton Park Racecourse that evening for a special event, and they asked if Gail and I wanted to join them while Aunt Sandra watched the boys (as well as his two adorable daughters Alexis (5) and Zarah (2)). Nice of him to offer her babysitting services. Anyway, we decided it would be fun, and Aunt Sandra assured us that looking after our boys as well as Ian's girls would be no problem, so we said yes. We arranged to meet at our hotel in the afternoon.

After lunch, we called my Aunt Trudy (another of mom's sisters – she has three plus two brothers) in nearby Motherwell to make sure she was going to be home, and then went to visit her. While there we also saw my cousin Julie and her husband (Andy) and kids (Cameron and Sarah). Cameron wasn't much younger than Ryan, and the three boys had fun playing soccer football. After a couple of hours, we went back to Aunt Sandra's place and dropped the boys off for the evening, then went back to the hotel to change. Ian and Lesley arrived a little while later, and we all hopped in a cab to the track. The place was packed. We grabbed some drinks (the aforementioned John Smith's for me, a Foster's for Ian, a pint (!) of wine for Lesley, and just water for Gail) and a race program and attempted to figure out what we were going to bet on. We pooled our money on a handful of tickets where you pick horses in each race and if all of the ones you choose either win or place, you win a bunch of money. We decided that if any one of them was a winner we'd split the winnings, so we picked horses based on clever things like what their name was and what colour they wore. We followed those tickets until they were all wiped out (one ticket lasted until about the fifth race), and occasionally put additional bets on single horses. There were lots of different betting booths, and each was run by a different bookie – the booth had a big sign on top saying who was running it. But the bookies decide on the odds, so depending on where you went to bet, you might get slightly different odds on a particular horse than the guy in the next booth. So you'd see a horse with 6-1 odds at one booth, but the guy at the next booth was giving 7-1. And the odds changed while the bets were coming in, so if you bought your ticket ten minutes earlier than someone else, even if you bought at the same booth, you might have different odds on the same horse in the same race. Overall we won a few and lost more but had a lot of fun.

At the end of the night, I thought that perhaps my alcohol tolerance was increasing back to university levels, when we'd have a few beers and then go out to the bar – nowadays if I have more than one beer in a night I'm generally ready for bed. But I had five pints of John Smith's over the course of a few hours. Make no mistake, I was quite drunk, more so than I'd been in many years, but prior to that I would have guessed that five beers in one night would have completely wiped me out. It wasn't until the other day when I was writing the blog entry for the highlands and found the link for John Smith's that I figured it out – it's only 3.8% alcohol. Your average Canadian beer is 5%, and my personal favourite, Rickard's Red, is 5.2%. (Stupid Molson web site won't let me link to the miniscule amount of information on Rickard's Red.) I know American beer is generally beer-flavoured water, but I didn't realize Scottish beer was too. At least in Scotland you can get dark and good-tasting beer-flavoured water, unlike the American stuff.

We cabbed it back to the hotel around 9:30, and Aunt Sandra met us there with the boys. They had had fun at an Orange Walk parade going through Larkhall. I had never heard of such a thing (my knowledge of Irish history is woefully inadequate), and I guess it's mainly an Irish thing, but I guess it's a big deal in some parts of Scotland as well. Thankfully it seems nowadays to be more of a parade for the sake of having a parade rather than a "down with the Catholic bastards!" thing like it might have been in the past. Anyway, by 10:00 it was bedtime for everyone – late for the boys and early for us, but I'm pretty sure that thanks to my new friend John Smith, I was the first one asleep.


July 12

Luckily, I don't get hangovers.

After breakfast we drove to a very cool playground in Chatelherault park in nearby Ferniegair. Aunt Sandra arrived with Alexis and Zarah a little while later, and the four kids had a great time playing together. It was a bright Sunday morning but the park was empty. By the time we left a couple of hours later, there were two other families there, but we couldn't figure out why the place wasn't packed.

After lunch, we went to visit my Uncle David (my dad's brother) and Aunt Margaret who live just around the corner from Aunt Sandra. We had a bit of a Perrow family reunion there – Uncle David and Aunt Margaret, Aunt Betty (my dad's sister) and Uncle Charlie, and two of my cousins – David (with his wife Caroline and daughter Suzanne) and George (with his wife Liz and his kids Mandy and Jordan and Mandy's boyfriend Kevin). Seeing Aunt Betty and Uncle Charlie was a wonderful surprise – they live in Manchester, and we had spent a fair bit of time during the previous couple of weeks trying to figure out the best way to get down there to see them. We didn't want to come three thousand miles across the Atlantic and then not see them when they're only a three hour drive away. But before we could decide on when we were going to go, we talked to Aunt Margaret and found that they had already taken the bus up and were staying in Larkhall until the 14th, which was when we were also leaving.

Uncle David's house isn't very big, so it was quite packed with all those people, but we all had a great time catching up. Suzanne and Mandy are about the same age – early 20's - but Jordan is only 9, about a year younger than Ryan. The boys and Jordan played for quite a while together and got along very well. Uncle David and Aunt Betty both love trivia, as do I (and as it turns out, a number of other people in attendance as well), so we had a lot of fun answering trivia questions from a talking trivia game that Uncle David had. At one point, we mentioned that we were driving to Edinburgh in a couple of days and I was a little worried about where we were going to park, since I knew our hotel does not offer parking. My cousin David warned me that parking in Edinburgh was crazy expensive, and suggested that we take the car back early and make our way around Edinburgh without it. We considered this, but the next day, circumstances convinced us to keep the car, at least for one day. For the next day or two I was quote worried about the parking situation in Edinburgh but it turned out OK, as I will get to later.

We stayed at Uncle David's until the boys ran out of steam in the early evening.


July 13

Another delightful breakfast at the Roadchef. I ordered a "bacon roll" without knowing precisely what it was, though I had a pretty good guess. Turns out the name was almost too accurate – it was a roll with a couple of slices of bacon in it. No butter or margarine, no lettuce or tomato, no toppings or condiments of any kind, just a roll with bacon. Presentation, people! Even the month-old sandwiches you find in vending machines have a sprig of parsley in them.

After breakfast we went to visit yet another of my mother's sisters, Aunt Maxine. She promptly put me to work fixing her computer which hadn't been working properly for a while. There were a couple of problems – the keyboard and mouse plugs had been twisted, so the pins were bent all to hell. A couple of minutes with a pair of tweezers fixed that, and then the hard part – I plugged her cable modem into the wall. Turns out that without power, those things don't do much. It wasn't rocket science, but Aunt Maxine now thinks I'm a computer god, so all's well that ends well.

The two sides of my family collided to some extent for lunch, as we met Uncle David, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Betty, and Uncle Charlie at the cafe in the garden centre where Aunt Sandra's shop is. This seemed a little weird, but does make sense, since my parents have been married for 47 years and together for about fifty, and they and their siblings all grew up in the same small town where most of them still live, so the families are fairly well acquainted. Actually, Aunt Betty and Aunt Sandra used to play together as kids, long before my parents got together. Anyway, we had a wonderful lunch - I had steak and mushroom pie and an Irn Bru – does it get more Scottish than that? Well, I suppose there was no haggis.

After lunch and some wandering around the other shops in the garden centre, we attempted to go and visit my Uncle Billy (my mom's youngest brother), but he was not home and Aunt Sandra couldn't get hold of him. We made our way back to the hotel and the boys played some Harry Potter Scene It? (a gift from Aunt Sandra) while Gail and I packed for our journey to Edinburgh the next day.


July 14

The morning was spent touring around saying goodbye to people before heading east. We stopped at Uncle David's place, Aunt Sandra's shop (narrowly missing seeing my other Uncle David by minutes), and then Aunt Trudy's. We filled up with gas, grabbed some McLunch, and headed towards Falkirk, a little over halfway to Edinburgh.

Falkirk is home of the Falkirk Wheel, the only rotating boat lift in the world. It performs the same function as locks in a canal, except that it replaces about 15 locks and turns in about 4 minutes. There are big gondolas (I told the boys to think of them as swimming pools) at the top and bottom of the wheel, and boats enter the gondolas. The gondolas are then sealed off (so the water won't drain out), and the wheel turns, keeping the gondolas level the whole time. Four minutes later, the gondola from the bottom is at the top and vice versa, and the gondolas open allowing the boats to drive out. It's an amazing feat of engineering. We took a tour boat and rode the wheel – from the top, we could see approaching rain in the distance. We had time to get back to the bottom of the wheel before the rain hit. We waited (in the conveniently-located gift shop) for a slight break in the rain before racing back to the car and continuing on to Edinburgh.

The highway took us to the outskirts of Edinburgh, and then we had to take city streets into downtown. It took us a while to get through the city and once we got near our hotel, the Royal Terrace Hotel, we found that a couple of streets were closed so we had forgo the GPS temporarily and use an actual (gasp) map (like, made of paper and everything! How quaint!) to find an alternate route. After a couple of U-turns (some required, some not), we found the place and parked on the street. The hotel was quite posh compared to most hotels we've been to, but compared to the Premier Inn, it was the freakin' Ritz. We got the key to our room on the second first floor (the ground floor is floor 0 in the UK) and when I opened the door, my first words were "Oh my goodness". The room had what had to be 15 foot ceilings, a huge chandelier in the middle, two queen beds, a couch and two wingchairs, a desk, and two TVs. It had to be at least triple the size of the Premier Inn room and several orders of magnitude nicer. There were three floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the street, and one of them had a view through the trees on the other side of the street to the Firth of Forth. It cost about double what the Premier Inn did, but was far bigger, far nicer, and had a far better location, so we were happy to pay it. At something like £110 a night, it was actually quite cheap for a beautiful place in downtown Edinburgh. Our first order of business was to find a local laundromat, and someone at the front desk told us about one just down the street. Unfortunately it was already closed, but opened early the next morning. On the way back, we found a pizza place and grabbed a couple of pizzas to take back to the room. The guy we ordered the pizzas from had a strong Italian accent (with hints of Scottish in it – very neat accent), which is always a good sign for a pizzeria, and we were not disappointed.

Shortly after returning with the pizza, we attempted to recharge the video camera, and as soon as I plugged in the power transformer (that we borrowed from Gail's dad), we heard a loud bang. I quickly unplugged it, noticing the black mark on both the plug and the wall. The plug adapter rattled a little and when I shook it, little tiny bits of a capacitor or resistor or something fell out. It had literally exploded. We asked at the front desk if they had power adapters that we could borrow, and they did but they were for European plugs, not North American ones. For the time being, we were out of power. Luckily the camera batteries still had some life left in them.

The parking thing wasn't as big a deal as we thought – overnight, anyway. Parking on the street in front of the hotel was plentiful and free from about 6:00pm to 8:00am, and the parking meters were smart – if you bought a two-hour ticket at 5:00pm, it didn't expire until 9:00am the next morning. During the day, however, parking was limited to four hours. This would prove somewhat expensive over the next few days but the fact that we didn't have to pay overnight saved us a bundle.


July 15

In the morning, we gathered up our dirty clothes and brought them down to the laundromat we had found the previous evening. Once the clothes were in the washer, we went across the street to a little cafe for breakfast. A couple of hours later, everything was done and we headed to the town of Kirkcaldy (the 'L' is silent, we found out later – it's pronounced "Ker-KAW-dee"), about an hour north of Edinburgh.

A couple of days before, we found out that my cousin Lesley's partner Wayne had just passed away. I had never met him, but he and Lesley had been together for several years. They had met through Lesley's work – in a nutshell, she helps to rehabilitate drug addicts, and Wayne was one. With Lesley's help, Wayne kicked the drugs and eventually joined her in helping others do the same. But many years of drug abuse had damaged his body, and at the age of 35, it gave out on him. I decided to attend the funeral since it was my only chance to see Lesley and I wanted to express my condolences. Gail took the boys down to the Kirkcaldy beach while I went with Aunt Sandra and my cousin Stuart (who also knew Wayne) to the funeral. It was a very nice service and I did get to see Lesley at the cemetery, though only for a few moments. She seemed happy to see me and grateful that I came, and so as much as I hate funerals (as most everyone does, I imagine), I'm glad I went.

After the burial, Aunt Sandra drove me back down to the beach, where we found Gail and the boys and had lunch. Aunt Sandra and Stuart headed back to Larkhall while we continued north to Dundee for our last family visit. My mom's second-youngest brother Allan is in Dundee, so we went to spend a few hours with him. We were surprised to find my cousin Hazel there as well. We thought she was on vacation in Egypt, so we were happy to see her, and to meet her children, Christopher (5) and William (2). The four boys got along very well and played (LOUDLY) the whole time. Hazel and her husband Wilson are considering immigrating to Canada at some point in the next few years (actually they're thinking about living in Hamilton, so we may end up being neighbours), so we tried to convince her that Canada is definitely the place to be.


July 16

We found a public parking garage around the corner from the hotel – we knew it would be expensive, but at least we wouldn't be ticketed or towed, so we bit the bullet and drove there. We had breakfast at a little cafe inside the mall next door, and then walked down Regent Street to The Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official Scottish home of the Royal Family. Mary, Queen of Scots once lived here and even witnessed her husband murder her secretary. Mary's son became King James VI of Scotland when he was a year old and about 35 years later when Elizabeth I died without children, he became James I of Great Britain, the first King of both Scotland and England, thus uniting the monarchies.

Anyway, enough of the history lesson. We enjoyed the tour of this "working palace", and were amazed to find that Princess Anne had stayed here just three days before our visit. Holyroodhouse is at the east end of the Royal Mile, with Edinburgh Castle at the other end. We walked the mile, stopping for lunch along the way, and then did the tour of the Castle, which was very cool. The views of the city and the Firth of Forth were amazing, and we could even see Kirkcaldy fairly easily across the Firth (though I don't remember being able to see Edinburgh from Kirkcaldy). The boys were very impressed with the castle, especially Mons Meg, the 500-year-old 15,000-pound cannon that could shoot a 400-pound cannonball over two miles, and the display of swords and shields. Basically, Gail and I appreciated the architecture and history, the boys liked the weapons.

After the Castle, we walked down to Princes Street, which is almost completely dug up to install a new tram line. While strolling around, we saw a store dedicated to travellers, mainly for hiking and camping, but I thought maybe we could find a new power adapter there, which we did. We ate at T.G.I. Friday's - after all the walking, everyone was hungry, and the boys devoured their meals. We walked back down Princes Street to pick up the car (parking cost: £19 = $34 - ouch) – while walking we heard the ominous sound of approaching thunder but managed to get to the parking garage before the rain started.

The new power adapter wasn't perfect because there are a number of different European plug formats. Our transformer kit had a number of adapters, and luckily it was only the UK plug adapter that blew, not the whole transformer. We plugged the transformer into a different adapter and then that adapter into the new one we bought, and then plugged that into the wall, and lo and behold, we had power again. It was a little wobbly and didn't look very safe, but it was only for one more day so we made it work.


July 17

The weather forecast for our last full day in Scotland was dreary and rainy, so we figured we'd have an indoor day. Luckily we'd seen the Castle and Royal Mile already. Around the corner from Holyroodhouse was a place called Our Dynamic Earth. It's similar to the Ontario Science Centre, but smaller and dedicated to the Earth itself: its geology, geography, climate, and animal life. There was a 360° movie (planetarium-style) called We Are Astronomers which the boys enjoyed and was probably pretty interesting, but I was so baked that the comfy reclining chairs and dark room got to me before the movie did, and I slept through it all.  RyanSpinning

After the movie, we went out front where they had a zero-gravity training thing, which was basically a chair in a hoop which spun in one direction within another hoop which spun in a different direction. Nicky was dying to try it, but Ryan kept saying he wasn't interested. Nicky went on and after seeing how much fun he had, Ryan decided to give it a try. The picture here shows how much he enjoyed it. Gail and I decided to pass.

After lunch, it was still raining, so we decided to stay downtown for the afternoon before heading back to the hotel to pack (again), so we went to the theatre and saw Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. The boys loved it, and Gail and I thought it wasn't bad either.

The evening was spent trying to figure out the best way to pack all the stuff we had accumulated into the suitcases we'd brought – luckily we always pack an empty duffel bag for just such occasions, so we checked four bags on the way to Scotland and five on the way back. While Gail did the packing (as she always does), I took the boys down to the hotel's swimming pool, which was quite small – the whole pool would have easily fit in our hotel room. It was also rather cold, so the boys only swam for maybe half an hour before I took them and their blue lips back upstairs.


July 18

We checked out in the morning and drove to the airport, filling the gas tank along the way. Dropping off the car was easy, and we walked to the terminal. We were actually a little early for the flight to London, so we had to wait a little bit before we could check our bags (though once we did, they went right on through to Toronto – we didn't have to get them and then check them again in London). The gate must have changed after our boarding passes were printed, so we only knew which gate to go to when we heard "This is the final boarding call for flight <whatever> to London Heathrow. All passengers should now be boarding at gate 44K", while we were sitting at 44C. We zipped down to 44K and made it, all the while checking the boarding passes which said quite clearly "gate 44C". The flight to London was uneventful, though getting through Heathrow was a little silly. We got off the plane and into the terminal and immediately had to line up with most of the rest of the passengers who were connecting to other flights. One person checked everyone's tickets individually before allowing us through (I believe the name on his security card was "Mr. Bottleneck"), and we then boarded one of a number of shuttles going to various other terminals, depending on which airline we were on. At this point, however, we were no longer in a "secure" area, meaning that we were in the general access area of the terminal, so I'm not sure what purpose Mr. Bottleneck served. After checking in at the Air Canada counter, we found that they had assigned us two seats in one row and two seats in the row behind, but not together – we had seats H and K, with seat J in the middle. Duh. Gail sat with Nicky in one row, and the person assigned seat J had no problem switching with Gail, and I sat with Ryan behind them and nobody sat next to me until shortly before take-off, when someone moved to accommodate some other passengers. He was also happy to switch with me. Ryan played his DS and watched Race to Witch Mountain, while I read and watched Watchmen, which I will have to rent and watch again sometime, since it really deserves a bigger screen than the 6-inch one on the plane.

On arrival in Toronto, we picked up our luggage and took the Park 'n Fly bus over to pick up the van. Our first stop, as it always is, was the Tim Horton's across the street from Park 'n Fly. The flight landed at 5:30 and we were home by 7:30, which is pretty good considering it's a 45 minute drive.


And thus ends my very long-winded account of our UK vacation. We had an amazing time, and I have also enjoyed reliving some of it while writing all of this. I have two more posts coming about this trip, both based on posts I made about our trip to France last year: By the numbers and Kudos and complaints.

The only casualty of the trip was Nicky's Nintendo DS, which we have not seen since the flight to Toronto. Gail thinks that he must have put it in the back of the seat in front of him to watch a movie. Because the movie wasn't over when the flight landed, he watched until the very last moment and then grabbed his bag and left. We called Air Canada and they gave me a reference number and a promise to call me if they find it, but I'm not holding my breath.