Friday, September 28, 2012

National Home Services' dirty tricks

The doorbell rang this afternoon. I answered it, and there was a guy who said he was representing National Home Services. He even had a badge with the company logo on it, and it might have had his picture, but I didn't really pay much attention to it. He said that he and his colleague were in the neighbourhood checking on people's hot water heaters. (Aside: why do we call it a "hot water heater"? It doesn't heat hot water, it just heats water. It's a water heater.) He said they were making sure that the heaters were as energy efficient as they could be, and they were upgrading them for free if not. I told him that our heater was only a year or two old so it was unlikely that we had a terribly inefficent model (this may have been a white lie – I'm not 100% sure how old it is, but it's certainly not more than four or five years). Then he said that there was a mistake made at some point, and some of the heaters that were installed were the wrong ones and they should be replaced. Lie #1.

I don't remember the exact words he used, but the impression he gave me was that his company was contracted by Reliance Home Comfort (the company from whom we rent our hot water heater) to check our heater and make sure it's OK. I asked if Reliance was worried about whether we have the right heater, why didn't they call us? He said that he didn't know. I said that I was going to call Reliance to verify that they were sending someone for this purpose, and he admitted that he does not work for Reliance, and that National is one of their competitors. He then went on a little rant about Reliance, saying that they were an American company (Lie #2), that they are actually an investment company (Lie #3), and that George W. Bush owns 51% of the company (Lie #4). He must have mentioned three or four times that National is a Canadian company while Reliance is American. He also said stuff like Reliance had bought all the hot water heaters from Union Energy for $30 each as an investment, so it's not in their best interest to maintain them or replace them. I have no way to verify that but from what I've found, Reliance Home Comfort used to be Union Energy and just changed their name in 2005. I'm guessing that that was Lie #5 but I can't be sure.

He offered to come in and take a look at our heater and see if it was one of the ones "mistakenly" installed. What are the odds that he'd take a look at our heater and say "Nope, this one is OK. You don't need your heater replaced. Have a nice day"? Pretty low indeed.

Eventually he must have figured out that I was not going for it, and he left. Of course, I then did some research on the internet to find out how much of what he was saying was true. I found that Reliance Home Comfort is a limited partnership, whose brand name is owned by a Canadian "open-ended limited purpose trust" called UE Waterheater Income Fund (this could, I suppose, be viewed as "an investment company"). That company is privately owned, so it's possible that the ownership is American and it's even possible that Mr. Bush does own 51% of it, though I found no evidence of either of those. However, the Reliance Home Comfort part operates solely in Ontario and the corporate headquarters of both Reliance and UE Waterheater are in Toronto.

I cannot say with certainty that the bit about Reliance installing the wrong water heaters was a lie. But even if it's true, he tried to imply that he was there to simply fix the problem, when in reality he was trying to get me to switch to an entirely new company. He failed to mention that part until I pressed.

But even if what he told me was true, why do I care whether the company I rent my hot water heater from is Canadian, American, or Brazilian? As long as the heater functions properly, their service is reasonable when needed, and I'm not paying an unreasonable price for it, the fact is that I don't care. I've only had to call for service once that I remember, when the heater wasn't working very well. They came out within a day or two and replaced the heater with a brand new one, and the new one (more efficient and bigger – same monthly price) has worked flawlessly ever since.

The guy's whole sales technique was based on (a) misleading people into thinking that he was there on behalf of whatever company they were already dealing with, and then when that didn't work, (b) bashing Reliance by telling lies about them.

I posted this on National Home Service's Facebook page:

Pushy sales people are one thing, but sales people who mislead and tell outright lies about your competitors are unacceptable. It doesn't matter how good your prices or services are, I refuse to deal with a company that uses such underhanded sales techniques.

I also mentioned them on Twitter in a similar message. I don't imagine that the Facebook comment will stay there long or that they'll respond to it, but between those two things and this article, I've managed to say what I wanted to say. I don't care if they give me a brand new water heater for $5 a month, I'm not dealing with this company.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

How not to argue your point

I saw a web site recently that raised a few red flags on the ol' skeptical radar that I've been exercising a lot over the last year or two. But this time it wasn't because of some outrageous pseudoscientific alternative healthcare ghost-hunting Bigfoot-finding paranormal UFO conspiracy claim. It was a site dedicated to the increasing of the speed limit in Ontario from 100 km/h to 120 or 130 km/h. It's not that I don't believe in this cause; in fact I'd be totally fine if that were to happen. The flags were raised because the strategies employed by the people who created the site are very similar to other sites with more questionable goals like trying to convince people that water fluoridation is dangerous or that 9/11 was a government conspiracy.

facepalmThe site is called and the main page is full of ugly colourful infographics, most of which link to their facebook page, though there are other documents on the site as well. Also out in full force on this site: logical fallacies. Below, I'll list some of the more obvious ones. Quotes from the site are in quotation marks and italics.

Appeal to popularity

Also called "bandwagon" – if many people believe something, it must be true. Hundreds of years ago, the vast majority of humanity believed that the sun revolved around the Earth. Didn't make it true.

  • One of the first things you see on the site is the question: "Do you want to legally drive at 120 km/h?" – even if 99.9% of respondents said yes, this means nothing. First off, most people coming to this site are likely to agree. Secondly, the fact that many people want something doesn't mean it's a good idea.
  • "Growing in strength… over 1300 identified members on board." Again, the popularity this movement is not relevant.
  • "Most drivers prefer to flow at a very comfortable 120-130 km/h". I'd be interested to know how they know what "most drivers" prefer. This is purely anecdotal, but I cruise on the highways around 110-115 km/h, and I don't generally find that I'm going slower than "most drivers".


Appeal to emotion

This is where they don't use actual logic. Instead, they use your emotions (in this case, anger and mistrust of government) to try and sway you.

  • "Enough lies, enough propaganda, enough politics, enough fear". What lies are they talking about? How is keeping the speed limit artificially low a political move? They are using many people's mistrust of government to imply some kind of conspiracy.
  • They want the government to stop "treating Ontario drivers as dangerous and incompetent by posting one of the lowest speed limits in the world". By saying this, they are trying to piss people off and get them angry at the government so that they will agree with these conclusions.
  • They talk about the "decades of inaction since 1976", as if the government should frequently revisit this issue.


Appeal to authority

Someone else said this and they're really smart so it must be true.

  • They mention the fact that many other countries have higher speed limits than Ontario. So what? It may be that some of these countries require driver education before you can be licensed, or require occasional re-testing, or have better roads. I've driven in Europe (both Great Britain and France), and in my experience, drivers there are vastly superior to drivers here in terms of things like driving in the correct lanes, passing safely, and keeping up with the flow of traffic. It might just be that drivers there can handle faster speeds because they're better drivers. Sorry, my fellow Ontarians, if you feel offended by that but that's how I see it.
  • On the other hand, it may also be that countries with higher speed limits also have higher accident rates than Ontario. There is one page that says that this is not true about Germany, but nothing is mentioned about anywhere else. They do say that Ontario has some of the safest highways in North America, which implies that the accident rates elsewhere are higher.
  • They use the fact that other places like Texas have recently increased their speed limits. Texas also has the death penalty, allows anyone to carry a concealed weapon, and the Texas Republican party has stated that they do not agree with the teaching of critical thinking. Perhaps using Texas as the model for our legal decisions isn't the best choice.
  • How do we know that other countries are looking at Ontario and saying "Ontario has had a 100 km/h speed limit for decades, and Ontario highways are some of the safest in North America [as stated on this site], so we should lower our speed limit"?


Affirming the consequent

These are what are commonly referred to as "non-sequiturs". You state that A is true and therefore B must also be true, but A does not imply B. "Non-sequitur" literally means "it does not follow".

  • "Speed limit on Ontario's 400-series highways was 112km/h (70 mph) forty years ago." So? How does that prove (or even imply) that driving 120 km/h is as safe as 100 km/h?
  • "Ministry of Transportation claims Ontario's roads are some of the safest in North America and the statistics confirm this." What makes you think that this isn't directly attributable to our lower speed limit?
  • "Divided highways are the safest roads ever invented and designed!" This is probably true, but it doesn't mean that a 120 km/h speed limit is any more or less safe than a 100 km/h speed limit. Irrelevant.
  • "The Provincial Government must stop… issuing unfair speeding tickets to vast majority of motorists who demand and wish to drive at globally accepted speeds of 120-140 km/h". First, driving over the posted speed limit is by definition speeding, and so a speeding ticket is not unfair. (This coming from a guy who was given a speeding ticket just last week. Was I happy about it? No. Was it unfair? No.) Second, who says that speeds of 120-140 km/h are "globally accepted"? Third, where are the stats saying that the "vast majority of motorists demand and wish to drive" that fast? All these non-sequiturs in a single sentence!
  • According to the site itself, the speed limit was reduced in 1976 "to ration gasoline and widespread oil shortages". Since these people are advocating reversing that decision, it stands to reason that they believe that global dependence on fossil fuels is significantly lower today than it was then, i.e. this is no longer a problem so we can increase the speed limit again. Is this true?
  • In a number of places, they talk about the lowering of the speed limit as having been a "political" decision, but I'm not sure what they are trying to say by that. It was a decision made by politicians, but seeing as they're the only ones who can actually change the laws, that makes sense. Surely they're not trying to say that there was no science or logic behind the decision, are they?


Misuse of statistics

This isn't really a logical fallacy, it's just misleading. They show a chart of data supplied by the MTO itself, and interpret the data to "prove" their point. The numbers show that in 2009, 6.7% of fatal accidents were caused by "speed too fast". Because this is such a small percentage (compared with things like "failed to yield right of way" and "lost control"), they argue that "Speed kills" is false. (They actually use the word "propaganda" here, as if it's a government conspiracy to keep us all driving slow.)

But looking at the data, we see that "Driving properly" was listed as the cause of 41.3% of fatal accidents. Surely "Driving properly" is the real culprit here, and we need to clamp down on it! Also, it's not clear where these "Apparent driver action" types came from or who categorized the accidents. It's therefore unclear what these statistics actually mean. If a driver is driving too fast, and attempts to pass someone improperly and then loses control, that single accident falls under three categories in this list. How would that be categorized?

Right above the chart of data is a graph showing "Fatalities by location" for 1990, 2000, 2008, and 2009. The 2009 graph (same year as the data chart) shows 924 fatalities on rural roads, 803 inside urban areas, and 297 on motorways. But the data chart says that there were 828 total fatalities. At least one of these pieces of data is wrong.

In an open letter to the Minister of Transportation, they open by saying "The movement with over 800 identified and millions of anonymous supporters
around the Province…
" Where is the "millions of anonymous supporters" claim coming from? If they really have millions of anonymous supporters, why have only 800 of them (1300+ now) given their names?


On the other hand…

The site isn't entirely without merit; there are some good points raised. Most of the quotes from politicians about keeping the speed limit where it is involve safety, but as they point out, safety wasn't the reason the limit was lowered in the first place. But if we're talking about safety anyway, modern cars are far safer than cars in the 60's and 70's when the speed limit was higher, with things like better seat belts, ABS, air bags, crumple zones, etc. In addition, modern highways are better designed than those of forty years ago.

One argument that they didn't use relates directly to the reason the speed limit was decreased in the first place, that being the oil crisis in the mid-70's. The idea was that cars driving at 100 km/h would use less gas than those driving at 110, so society would use less oil and we'd all be better off. But cars today are far more energy efficient than those of the mid-70's. Your average 2012 car driving 120 km/h uses far less gas than your average 1976 car driving 100 km/h, so even if we increase the speed limit back to 110, we'd still be using less oil than we did in 1976.



Given what I've written above, it may seem surprising that I don't actually disagree with the premise that the speed limit should be increased on the 400-series highways. I'd be fine with the limit being raised to 110 or even 120, but no higher than that. Despite their claims to the contrary, I think a lot of people would see a 120 km/h limit and immediately start driving 140 km/h everywhere. I also think that if they're going to do this, they need to put a 90 km/h minimum speed, and enforce it. The minimum speed would only apply if weather and traffic conditions allowed it, but if the road is wide open and the weather is fine, there's no reason for some idiot driving 80 km/h on the 401. I don't believe speed by itself is as big a factor in accidents as the difference in speed between vehicles.

But the myriad of logical fallacies and statements of opinions as fact on this site dilute their points, and I don't think it helps their case. So I'm fine with the cause these guys are fighting for. I just don't like the way they're fighting.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

You call him Doctah Jones

All movie series' have their strong episodes and their weak ones. Many times the first one is much better than the sequels (The Matrix, Back to the Future, Pirates of the Carribbean, Men In Black, Jurassic Park) but not always. Star Wars was great, but The Empire Strikes Back was better, and I thought Return of the King was the best of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Star Trek movies have the "every other one is great" reputation, and it's been surprisingly accurate so far (though I wasn't a huge fan of IV – The Voyage Home). I thought all of the Harry Potter movies were really good, but some are still better than others.

There are lots of series where there is a huge gap between the quality of the good ones and the bad ones (i.e. make a very good movie and then make "whatever 2" which sucks – Highlander comes to mind), but normally when there has been enough interest to make three or more movies, even the bad movies in the series aren't terrible. The odd-numbered Star Trek movies weren't as good as the even numbered ones, but they were still watchable. The Matrix, Pirates, and Men in Black sequels weren't as good as the first, but still not bad. But the Indiana Jones series is unique among movie series because it has more than one movie that's really good (Raiders, Last Crusade) and yet still has the huge gap in quality between the good ones and the bad ones (Temple of Doom, Crystal Skull). The good ones are really really good, while the bad ones are terrible.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

  • OK, the ancient Aztecs build a crazy cave with huge stone doors and stuff to protect this gold idol thing. Not totally out of the realm of possibility. But how did they build a mechanical light sensor? And what happens when it's cloudy?
  • Anyone who can have that many tarantulas on his back and casually brush them off is, well, not me.
  • Indy jumps in his getaway plane and they fly off. Then he notices Reggie, the pilot's pet snake. Obviously Indy knew nothing about Reggie, so he didn't fly down to Peru in that plane. How did Indy get there and how did Reggie and the plane get there? Did Indy really hire an American to fly down to Peru separately to wait for him?
  • When we first see Marion, she's in a drinking competition with someone in her bar. (To this day, I honestly don't know if her competitor is a man or a woman.) She takes a shot and almost passes out, but then recovers and finishes the shot. When her competitor passes out, Marion starts cleaning up and is completely sober.
  • The DVD box set we have (of the first three movies) call this "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark".

Great Line: "It's not the years sweetheart, it's the mileage." Sums up Indiana Jones perfectly.
Creepy Scene: I first saw this movie when I was 12, and there are three scenes that I remember creeping me out: the famous face-melting scene at the end (which did more than just creep me out – it scared the crap out of me), the guy getting chopped up by the propeller, and the one shot of a big snake coming out of a skull's mouth.
Overall: 5/5. Simply one of the best action-adventure movies ever.

Temple of Doom

  • For years, I've thought that the only reason Kate Capshaw was in this film was because she was married to Steven Spielberg. But I was wrong – they met on this movie and didn't get married until later. This is actually worse than I thought, because it means that the casting people put her in the movie on purpose. They actually cast her based on her acting talent and not on nepotism, which calls into question their ability to judge talent. I didn't think she was great acting-wise, and I hated the character. She just screamed and whined far too much.
  • Short Round was irritating and not funny in the slightest – the Jar Jar Binks of this series. There were parts where I wanted Indy to shoot him and Willie and let the bad guys live.
  • There was one scene where an elephant keeps putting his trunk on Willie's shoulder and she keeps pushing it off. Then a huge snake slithers onto her shoulder and she grabs it and throws it away, the joke being that she thought it was the elephant again and didn't know it was a snake. But this makes no sense – if she thought it was the elephant's trunk, why would she grab it and throw it forward? Was she expecting to throw the entire elephant, or rip its trunk off?
  • Willie doesn't want the live snakes for dinner, so she asks for "something simple, like soup?" Who asks for soup? Nobody, it's a contrived plot device so they can give her eyeball soup.
  • They lower a metal cage with a person in it into molten lava and the person is burned away entirely, but the cage is neither damaged nor even hot when they pull it back up. What the heck is the cage made of?
  • Even in this terrible movie, Harrison Ford is really good. The bit in the room with the spiky ceiling where he mashes his face into the little window and enunciates "WE ARE GOING TO DIE" was very funny.

Great Line: When about to escape the clutches of the bad guy in a plane at the beginning, Indy says "Nice try, Lao Che!" right before closing the plane door. We then see that the door says "Lao Che Airways" on it.
Creepy Scene: Willie sticks her hand in a hole filled with every kind of bug imaginable. Bad dude sticks his hand inside the guy's chest and pulls his heart out. Also, "Ah, dessert. Chilled monkey brains."
Overall: 2/5. The story was lame, and all the characters except Indy were weak.

Last Crusade

  • As my wife and I say every time we see the beginning of this movie: River Phoenix. (Sigh) Such a waste.
  • Sean Connery was perfectly cast and he and Harrison Ford pulled off some great lines together. "I didn't know you could fly a plane!" "Fly, yes. Land, no." The bit where Indy asks him how he knew Elsa was a Nazi and he says "She talks in her sleep" and they look back and forth at each other is brilliant.
  • So the third brother has been living in this cave in Egypt for hundreds of years, drinking from the Holy Grail to keep himself alive that long. But by this time, he's very frail. Has he stopped drinking from the Grail? Or do you still age and decline in health but never die? What kind of shape would he have been in if nobody had found the cave for another five hundred years? And never being able to leave the cave at all? Who would want to be immortal with those conditions?
  • I always thought that the actor that played Donovan was just not very good; some of his lines sounded really fake. While researching this article, I found out that he is an English actor doing an American accent. And not very well. He should talk to the House guy, or Apollo from Battlestar Galactica.
  • Speaking of fake accents, Indy's fake Scottish accent at the castle in Germany is terrible. He sounds as Scottish as Dick Van Dyck does English. This may have been intentional.
  • Every time Sallah sees Indy, he tips his hat. Even when riding on a horse next to the tank trying to save his life.

Great Line: "He chose... poorly."
Creepy Scene: Donovan's death was a bit creepy, but not as bad as the other movies.
Overall: 4.5/5. Donovan should have been re-cast, but the rest of the film was great. I was glad that John Rhys-Davies returned as Sallah – he's a great character.

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

  • Aliens? Really?
  • When they are in the storage warehouse looking for the ultra-magnetic thing, Indy drops little metal balls on the ground and they roll toward the magnetic thing. Later on, you notice the lights above all shifting towards it. Why haven't the lights been shifting towards this thing for however long it's been there? If they have, then every hanging light in the place should point directly at it so there's no need for the metal balls at all. And if it's that powerful, the bullets that he pulled the metal balls from should just roll towards it – no need to break them open. Plus once they recover the skull and carry it all over South America, it doesn't seem to be magnetic anymore.
  • Indiana Jones says "nuclear" as "nucular".
  • The whole "surviving a nuclear blast in a fridge" scene is silly and unnecessary.
  • The Australian dude that was Indy's friend, then was working with the Russians, then said he was a double-agent, then was a bad guy again didn't seem to be necessary either.
  • What  mother would sit back and watch her teenage son swordfight with a Russian spy while standing on a moving jeep?
  • A Peruvian native is about to shoot a blow dart at Mutt when Indy jumps in front of him and blows in the pipe the other way. Wouldn't the guy get hit in the throat with the back of the dart and thus not be poisoned? It would still hurt, and might still kill him, but he wouldn't just immediately die.

Great Line: No great line for this one – I haven't seen the movie often enough to remember any.
Creepy Scene: Ants.
Overall: 3/5. Better than Temple of Doom, but not by much. All of the Indy stories strain credulity and there's a fair bit of suspension of disbelief, and I'm OK with that. This one, however, went way overboard – to the extent that "nuking the fridge" is a thing now, similar to "jumping the shark". I like Shia Labeouf, but I didn't think Cate Blanchett or Karen Allen were all that great.


And now they've announced Indiana Jones 5. I'm not sure whether I'm looking forward to it or not; seems like it will either be fantastic or terrible. Hopefully it follows the "odd-numbered Indy movies are great" rule.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Security theater

We all know that the world changed on September 11, 2001. Obviously the events of that day were tragic, and it seemed that America (and to a great extent, Canada too) completely shut down for a week just to recover. Gradually things got restarted and back approaching normal, but in the months and years following, a lot of things never returned to what was "normal" before, and in certain cases the new normal is a lot different from what was normal before.

The thing that everyone can point to as being very different is security, particularly for air travel. Before 9/11, everyone had to go through security before flying, which included being interviewed at customs as well as going through a metal detector, but that was about it. Now, we all have to take our shoes and belts off, throw away bottles of water and contact lens solution, and either consent to being groped by a TSA agent or go through a scanner that can take naked pictures of us. To quote Timon from The Lion King: "... and everyone's okay with this?"

The site of the World Trade Center is now a memorial, but the amount of security required to get into it is unreal. It's not just a public park that anyone can walk around. To get tickets, you need to provide your name, address, and phone number, and everyone over 13 needs picture ID that can be asked for at any time. During the cold war we used to laugh at Soviet society, where anyone could be asked for their papers at any time, and thrown into jail if they didn't have them. Aren't we lucky not to live in a place like that? Well, now we do.

This has bothered me for years, but why aren't more people all up in arms about all of this? The belief seems to be that the additional security measures are inconvenient, but they keep us safe so we should just put up with them. But are we really safer now than before? The TSA themselves listed their Top 10 good catches of 2011, which mostly consisted of people trying to get weird things through security or things that would have been found by a metal detector anyway. No terrorists made the list. Early this year there was the cupcake incident, where a passenger had a cupcake confiscated because it could have been made of some kind of explosive gel.

The whole point of the TSA seems to be to protect the American public from possible-but-extremely-unlikely scenarios. Security expert Bruce Schneier calls it "security theater" – it gives all the appearance of providing security, but actually does nothing. You can't bring more than 100 mL of liquids onto the plane in case they're liquid explosives. So 100 mL of liquid explosive is not dangerous? And two separate 100 mL bottles (which are allowed) are not dangerous but one 200 mL bottle is? You can't bring a two-inch-long nail file (security officers snapped one off of our nail clippers) because it could be a weapon, but you're allowed a six-inch sharpened pencil. Then once you're in the air, they bring you your dinner and give everyone a metal knife and fork.

The TSA is supposed to be protecting American citizens from terrorists. But how many terrorist plots have they actually foiled? The total number of people killed in the USA in terrorist attacks since 9/11 is 16. Sixteen people in eleven years. This means that either all of the law enforcement agencies all over the US have been extremely effective in preventing terrorist attacks, or there just aren't that many. Certainly not enough to warrant the $8 billion per year that the US government spends on the TSA. While I acknowledge that it's possible that a number of terrorist attacks have been foiled and they just haven't made that information public, I suspect the actual number of terrorists stopped from blowing up / hijacking a plane is zero.

Back to the World Trade Center memorial, how likely is it that terrorists would target it for an attack? Obviously it's a very meaningful place for Americans so there's that factor, but a smart terrorist would bypass that entirely and just attack a subway station (zero security on subways, not even metal detectors) or a mall or, like in Tom Clancy's book The Sum of All Fears, a jam-packed football stadium.

If terrorists want to attack the US again, they wouldn't be able to do the exact same thing as they've done in the past, since we've got those bases covered. But if they were not idiots and really determined to find a way, the security procedures put in place by the TSA are unlikely to be able to stop them. But it's possible that not a single member of Al-Qaeda has set foot in the US in eleven years. In reality, what they're likely doing is laughing at all the silly hoops that they've caused Americans to have to jump through.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Northern Ontario vacation - Part 3: Pancake Bay and home

This is part 3 (the thrilling conclusion) in the continuing saga of our 2012 family vacation to Northern Ontario. Part one: Ivanhoe Lake and Thunder Bay. Part two: Manitouwadge. Part three: Pancake Bay and then home.

August 15

We only had a few hours to drive on this day (between 3 and 4, compared with the 8 or 9 we'd done on previous days), so we didn't make a point of getting up early. But after breakfast, we started packing up, then thanked Rolly and Candyce for their generosity and hospitality, and headed out. We stopped in White River for an early lunch, and were in Pancake Bay by mid-afternoon. We got set up quickly and once again, out came the cribbage board. Both boys knew how to play crib before we left, but by the end of this vacation, Ryan was getting very good, and Nicky still had a few troubles with strategy ("Why can't I lead a five?") but was certainly making progress. After dinner, John made a fire (he's a better fire-maker than I am, but it also helps to have dry wood), and the boys roasted marshmallows. Both boys have way more patience with this than I ever did – my strategy was always to set the marshmallow on fire, quickly blow it out, and then eat the burnt part, leaving a second smaller marshmallow to roast burn. This continued until there was nothing left. But both my boys can patiently put the marshmallow over the coals and slowly turn it until it's just like me with a tan: golden brown on all sides and soft and mushy in the middle.

August 16

This was the least active day of our vacation, but still not terrible. It started raining shortly after breakfast, but we were playing cards in the dining tent so we didn't really pay much attention. Then the rain started getting heavier, so we threw the big tarp over the dining tent and kept going. Pretty soon the rain started running under the dining tent (there's no floor) and pooling. It was also getting very loud with the rain hitting the tarp, so we decided to go inside the trailer where we had more room. This was a good decision, as the rain quickly became torrential. We played some cards inside and read for a while, as the rain continued to pound outside. It was the heaviest rain I can remember in years – every time you thought it couldn't possibly rain any harder, it did. After lunch, Gail grabbed her laptop and the DVDs we brought from the van, and the boys finished off the Star Wars series with Return of the Jedi (they had watched episodes I through V on various days of driving) while we played cards and read. In the late afternoon the rain finally let up, and we drove down to the "trading post" down the road, which consisted of a small grocery store ($8.99 for a 12-pack of Diet Coke! Ouch) and a couple of fairly big country stores which sold everything from bumper stickers and fridge magnets to animal skins and huge wooden carvings. We spent maybe an hour walking around there and it rained on and off that whole time, but by the time we left, it had stopped. When we got back to the campground, we were thankful that John had had the presence of mind to cover the firewood with a tarp before the rain started, and we had a fire going in no time.

In the early evening, Gail and I took a romantic twilight stroll down to the garbage shack. This led to one of the more amusing things we saw at Pancake Bay. When camping in the north, storing garbage in your tent or trailer or even your car is dangerous because of bears. They can smell food miles away (and they are less particular about what they call "food" than we are), and when they smell it they'll stop at nothing to get it. Bears have been known to rip doors off of cars because of half a chocolate bar in the glove compartment. So we laughed at the door to the garbage shack:

Bear proof

That teeny little chunk of wood they call a "lock" would keep a bear out? Or the flimsy chicken wire? Not a chance. But wait – there's a sign on the door:

Please ensure you place all garbage in a garbage bag
Ensure the door is locked when you leave
Please, no scavenging
Thank you, Park staff

Now that the bears know that there's no scavenging allowed, they'll obviously go somewhere else.

August 17

I don't remember if it was raining when we woke up, but if it wasn't, it definitely did overnight. As a result, the tents and tarps and everything that was outside was very wet. After a quick breakfast, we packed almost everything into the van, and then stuffed the dining tent and the tarp covering it into garbage bags, with the intention of opening them up once we were home to let them dry off before packing them away. We drove with John and Jackie almost to the Sault, where they went east towards home while we continued south. After a stop at Tim Horton's, we crossed the bridge to Sault Michigan and then waited in the customs line. The lines didn't seem all that long, but it was the better part of an hour before we were through and into the good ol' US of A. We drove over the very cool Mackinac Bridge, and then straight down through the middle of Michigan towards Flint, where we hung a left towards Port Huron. We stopped once for lunch (around Gaylord, I believe), and then again shortly before crossing the border again to fill up on (cheap American) gas. There was virtually no lineup at Port Huron, so after one of the quickest customs stops ever, we were in Sarnia and about 2½ hours later, we were home.

I had reset the trip odometer just before we pulled out for St. Catharine's the previous Friday, so once we were back in the driveway I took a picture:

3608.1 km

I made a Google map of the trip which shows the driving we did. As you can see, the total was 3608 km, which is roughly equivalent to driving from Toronto to San Francisco, or from New York City to Las Vegas. The boys are really good travellers, at least when they have a DVD player, Nintendo DS'es, and iPods to keep them occupied. They did look up to see the awesome views whenever Gail and I gasped, and they didn't complain once about our "no iPods or DS'es when not driving" rule. I did hear "how much longer?" a couple of times, but it was always in the vein of "Do we have time to finish this movie" or something similar, and never whiny. I can't say that I did all the driving, since Gail drove around Manitouwadge a little. But that was probably less than 10 km total, so I can say I did almost all the driving. That is not a complaint at all since I love to drive, and our van (a 2010 Chrysler Town & Country) is very comfortable on long trips.

After adding up the camping costs, gas, restaurant and grocery store bills and such, I think this entire vacation cost us less than $1000, compared to the $7-10 thousand our France and UK trips cost. Of course, camping is very cheap compared to even the most inexpensive hotels, and gas (as expensive as it was up north – ~$1.40-$1.45/L compared to ~$1.28 at home) is way cheaper than four flights anywhere. Staying with family for four days really helped as well. We're already thinking of a camping trip out east (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI) next summer. That's not to say we'll never stay in a hotel or travel to Europe again; we've already decided that our next major overseas trip will be to Italy, though we have no idea if that will be in two years or fifteen.

Most importantly, we had a great time. In the first few days after we got home, all four of us commented on how much we enjoyed this trip. We went places we'd never been before, saw things we'd never seen before, and did things we'd never done before. The boys are old enough that they can be given a lot more freedom and independence than before, but young enough that they still sometimes see things in a way that only children can.

Once again, thanks to Rolly and Candyce for their hospitality during our stay, and to John and Jackie for not only being great travelling companions but roommates as well!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Northern Ontario vacation - Part 2: Manitouwadge

This is part 2 in the continuing saga of our 2012 family vacation to Northern Ontario. Part one: Ivanhoe Lake and Thunder Bay. Part two: Manitouwadge. Part three: Pancake Bay and then home.

August 12

Rolly's boatWe had a nice sleep-in before we got moving. Our plan was to spend the day sailing on Rolly's 25-foot sailboat in Lake Manitouwadge, but it wasn't in the water yet so that was our first project. Rolly had parked the boat at work (i.e. the OPP station), so we went there first and the boys and I had a little tour of the station. We saw the cells (and all the security measures around them), the boys were fingerprinted, and they even got to see the gun locker and hold the guns. When we were done with the tour, we hooked the boat trailer up to the truck and took it down to the launch. I'm not a boat guy (I enjoy boating in general but I know squat about sailing) so I wasn't sure how much help I could be, but we managed to get everything set up and even had no trouble putting the mast up, which Rolly said could be challenging at times. Rolly backed the boat into the water (and let Ryan drive the truck a little after releasing the boat) and we were off to the races. The four of us sailed around the lake for an hour or two, and he had the boys help out whenever possible, hoisting the thing and raising that other thing and making sure the schmerbler was properly grommled, or whatever. When we started to get hungry, we looked over at the dock where we launched and found that Gail, Jackie, and Candyce had arrived with lunch. After a lovely lunch sitting on the dock, Gail joined us back out on the lake.

This was a sailboat with a small motor, not a "motorboat", so the thought of water skiing or wakeboarding never occurred to me. And we didn't... exactly... but the boys tried something similar. Rolly tied a long rope to the back of the boat and then Nicky jumped in the water and swam back until he grabbed the rope. Then when he was ready, Rolly gunned the motor and Nicky was dragged through the water.Nicky belly-skiing He had to turn onto his back now and again to breathe, but he had a blast. After a few minutes he got tired, and Ryan gave it a try. He also had fun, and impressed us all by sliding down the rope until he was all the way at the end and then pulling himself back in again, while the motor was going full speed.

After another visit to the dock to let Gail off, we sailed around the lake a little more and played some cards down below. When dinner time was approaching, we headed back to Rolly's, leaving the boat in the water. After dinner, Rolly and Nicky headed back to the boat for a sleepover. Rolly had mentioned during the day that he and Candyce sleep on the boat when they go on sailing trips in Lake Superior, and Nicky thought that sleeping on the boat would be really cool. Ryan seemed less enthused, so it was just Nicky and Rolly. After we got Nicky set up with a change of clothes and his toothbrush (Rolly assured us that it would come back unused), the two intrepid sailors headed off. The rest of us played several games of cribbage, and then it was off to bed after a relaxing and yet tiring day.

August 13

After another sleep-in (sitting out in the sun all day really tires one out, even if one is not doing anything strenuous), we got up and ate, and then Candyce and I headed down to the dock to help Rolly with the boat and see how Nicky lasted the night. When we arrived, the boat was docked and Rolly was doing some cleanup while Nicky, still in his pyjamas, was inside watching a movie (Up) on a portable DVD player. He'd had a great time on the boat and had slept pretty well, though his toothbrush was indeed unused. He said that they got to the boat, packed everything on board, and then sailed to the middle of the lake where they dropped anchor. Then they played cards for a while, watched a movie, and went to bed.

View of ManitouwadgeWe backed the trailer into the water, got the boat secured on it, and pulled it out. Then we lowered the mast and secured all the stuff that needed securing before pulling it back to the OPP office. By this point it was lunch time so we went back to Rolly's for lunch, and then Rolly, Candyce, Ryan, Nicky, and I went on a hike. There is a little trail from the back of Rolly's house to a gravel road, and then a hiking trail from there up the hill behind the town. Most of the trail was through the woods, though there was a bit along the ski hills which were a little more open, but you still couldn't really see much. Then suddenly, we got to the top of the hill and there was a beautiful view of the entire town. And I mean the entire town, it's not that big.

Ready, aim...After we came back down, Rolly had another surprise for the boys – they were going to make slingshots. The three of them went looking for appropriate Y-shaped sticks, and then cut up an old bicycle inner tube and tied the strips onto the sticks. This worked surprisingly well, and after a bit of a lecture from boring old dad ("Remember, these are not toys, these are weapons. You never point them at any person or animal, blah blah blah"), they found some rocks and proceeded to blast an old plastic jug. I even had a go and found that they were pretty powerful and could get a rock up to a surprising speed, but aiming was harder than I thought. The boys played with their new toys practiced with their new weapons until dinner.

After dinner, the boys played cards inside while we chatted with Candyce's daughter Charrly, her husband, and a couple of other friends of theirs who came to visit.

August 14

Rolly and Candyce are both avid scuba divers, and they thought it would be great for for all of us to give it a try. But Lake Manitouwadge is cold and murky. Lake Superior is an hour away and there are places that aren't so murky so you can see stuff, but it's cold as well, so neither is the ideal place to learn. There's a lake at Wawa that's warm and clear, and Rolly said that would be an ideal place to learn but that's 2½ hours away. So we did the next best thing – Rolly rented the local pool. He's got all the required gear (actually, he could outfit a whole scuba school if he wanted), so he brought that to the pool and we all gave it a try. He had one tank set up with a 25-foot hose, so it sat on the deck while we got in the water. The boys took to it right away – put the mask on, put the regulator in your mouth, grab the weight belt, and sit on the bottom for a few minutes. No problem. Gail and I.... not so much. We can both swim, but it just wasn't for us. I managed to get underwater, and I could breathe just fine – I even took a few really deep breaths to convince myself that the regulator could give me as much air as I wanted – but I just wasn't comfortable for some reason and I couldn't stay under for more than about ten seconds without semi-panicking and coming back up. Gail was the same.

After trying with the tank on the deck for a while, Ryan wanted to go the whole nine yards and use his own tank. Rolly set him up, and off they went to the deep end. They were both under for ages, and when they returned Ryan kept saying how awesome it was. Nicky had the same success, as did Charrly's kids (one about Ryan's age, the other a couple of years older). Rolly had an underwater camera that took some pretty nice pictures; here's our favourite:

Nicky the diver

Rolly had the pool for two hours, and despite the fact that it was pretty cold once you got out of the water and there looked to be rain clouds approaching, the swimmers stayed in the pool the whole time.

Everyone slept really well that night.

In our final installment, we leave Manitouwadge for Pancake Bay and then home.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Northern Ontario vacation - Part 1: Ivanhoe and Kakabeka

I have lived in Ontario almost all my life (43 years minus the four months I lived in Redmond, Washington), and the size and beauty of this province never fails to astound me. We don't have mountains as high as the Rockies or white sand beaches or palm trees or cute little fishing villages on the ocean. But we do have hundreds of lakes and millions of hectares of forests, all built upon one massive rock known as the Canadian Shield. You can drive on a single road for 24 straight hours (Toronto all the way to the Manitoba border) and not even leave Ontario. And that route wouldn't take you anywhere near Windsor or Ottawa and is more than 800 km from the northern tip of the province. It's a big place.

For our summer vacation this year, we took a camping trip (with Gail's dad John and stepmom Jackie) along the north shore of Lake Superior. We stayed at three different provincial parks and also visited family for several days. We tried scuba diving, dug for amethysts, visited an old fur trading fort, went sailing, made slingshots, and played lots and lots of cribbage. We had a great time and as I have done in the past with France and the UK, I'm going to write about it here – not because my millions thousands dozens several readers are dying to know what happened on our trip, but so that we can look at it again in a few years and remember.

This article was getting really long, so I broke it into three parts. Part one: Ivanhoe Lake and Thunder Bay. Part two: Manitouwadge. Part three: Pancake Bay and then home.

August 6

The trip started on Monday, August 6th with a rather inefficient trip to St. Catharines, which is 45 minutes directly away from where we wanted to go. Ryan has been playing house league soccer for many years and this year, he was asked to play with the rep team, which he was very excited about. Monday was his first game with them, and he really didn't want to miss it so we packed up the van and drove to St. Catharines for a 7pm game. The team got smoked (something like 7-0, we lost count after a while), but Ryan really enjoyed the game. Afterwards, we headed back around Lake Ontario (passing within about 5 km of our house) and then north to Gail's dad's place in Sundridge, arriving there around 1:30am.

August 7

Driving day #1. After a quick sleep, we hit the road around 8:15am. We drove north through North Bay and Sudbury, with a stop in the little town of Gogama where Jackie's sister has a trailer. After a brief visit, we continued north to the outskirts of Timmins before hanging a left down Highway 101 to Ivanhoe Lake Provincial Park, arriving in time for dinner. John and Jackie brought their trailer for the trip, and after setting it up and enjoying a short campfire, all six of us slept quite comfortably.

August 8

Ivanhoe LakeThe beach at Ivanhoe Lake the next morning might have been the quietest place I've ever been. There were lots of camp sites around us with trailers on them, but almost no people. I walked down to the beach by myself and just stood and listened – other than the occasional loon call or chipmunk chattering, there was no noise whatsoever. It was amazing. We spent the day walking around some nature trails, reading, playing cribbage, and generally relaxing. One of the nature trails featured a "quaking bog", which is a bog that is so overgrown with weeds and grass that you can walk on it. Each step caused the ground around you to shake, giving the place its name. The forest was very wet and mossy, and the ground (even away from the bog) was very springy. It was like no other forest I've ever been in.

We had another campfire in the evening before heading to bed. I hit the hay somewhat early; we had driven over 500 km the previous day, but the next day's drive was going to be even longer so I wanted to be well rested.

August 9

WawaGot up, had a quick breakfast, packed up, and hit the road by 8am. Our first stop was about an hour away in Chapleau, where we planned on visiting the rail museum. We arrived too early and didn't want to wait for another hour until it opened, so we just kept going. We stopped in Wawa, another hour away, for lunch, gas, and the obligatory stop at the Big Goose. From there, we temporarily parted ways with our travelling companions, as John and Jackie drove to Manitouwadge while we continued west to Thunder Bay. Jackie's son Rolly is an OPP officer in Manitouwadge and visiting Rolly and his wife Candyce was the main reason for our trip. But we had never been to Thunder Bay so we decided that since we were in the area (relatively speaking), we'd continue on for a couple of nights there before heading to Manitouwadge.

As we went further west, we got into some serious hills. I won't call them "mountains" in case anyone who lives in the Rockies reads this and laughs but for an Ontarian, these were pretty big. The road went up and down and was winding all over the place. There were a number of places where you'd come over the crest of a hill and it looked like the road went straight down into the lake. I have to say that the part of the Trans-Canada Highway between Nipigon and Terrace Bay might be the most beautiful piece of highway I've ever been on, and that would include both the Sea to Sky highway from Vancouver to Whistler, and the 17-Mile Drive in California. Actually, trying to rank them is difficult because they're all beautiful for different reasons, so let's just say they're all awesome.

We stopped for dinner at a truck stop in Nipigon. We were booked at Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park, which is west of Thunder Bay and we didn't arrive there until around 8pm, at which point I heard a sound I hadn't heard in days – my phone finally had a signal again, and I was able to check my email. Since we knew John and Jackie were taking the trailer to Manitouwadge with them, we brought our tent and in less than an hour, we were all set up. We bought some wood at the park but after an hour of fumbling with it we couldn't get a fire going, so we abandoned it and went to bed.

August 10

The night was chilly (7° when we woke up), but we were all comfortable in our sleeping bags. After a quick breakfast, we headed back to Thunder Bay to visit the Fort William Historical Park, which we thought was an old military fort that had been refurbished and turned into a historical site. As it turned out, we were wrong on both counts. The park is a re-creation of the original Fort William, a trading fort (which was located elsewhere in Thunder Bay) where voyageurs would come to trade their furs. The fur trade is a defining part of Canadian history, and we all enjoyed learning more about this part of our heritage. We learned about how they built canoes, how it took six weeks to get there from Montreal, and about the different kinds of furs they traded (obviously beaver, but also squirrel (!), wolf, seal, bear, deer, lynx, and fox). Nicky and another kid got to be "the fire" during a fire engine demonstration (and was drenched for the rest of the day), and the boys and I even played a little lacrosse using old-time wooden sticks and a ball made out of deerskin filled with feathers.

The boys favourite activity was axe throwing. They had a huge log to aim at, and you stood about ten feet away and tried to bury the head of the axe in the wood. The training and safety instructions for this consisted of the guy giving you an axe and saying "Here ya go, now throw it.". There were very few people there, so Nicky, Ryan, and I each had a couple of turns and Gail took one as well. Nicky loved it so much that the rest of the day he kept asking if we could go back and try it again, but it was a timed thing, so you couldn't just go any time and throw. In the picture below, you can see the axe in the air just before it hit the log.

Ryan throwing the axeWe originally planned on spending about half a day at Fort William, but it was after 4:00 before we left. After the Fort, we drove into Thunder Bay to see if we could get a good view of the lake. We had been told that from just about anywhere in the city, you get a great view of the "Sleeping Giant", and we were curious to find out what that meant. We stopped at a grocery store and picked up a pizza, then happened across Hillcrest Park. From here, we did indeed get a great view of the Sleeping Giant which is a huge rock formation across the bay that looks like a man sleeping on his back. We ate our pizza, took some pictures, walked around the nearby gardens, and hung out at the park for a while before heading back to Kakabeka.

Once again we tried to get a fire going and once again we had no luck. It was obvious that the wood was very wet – once it got hot enough (with almost constant fanning with our empty pizza-box lid) we could see dribbles of water and lots of steam coming out of the ends of the wood but we had to work almost constantly just to keep it alight. After going through about 10 chunks of firestarter (usually two is sufficient to get the fire going) and gradually reducing our fan size by tearing off strips of cardboard to burn, we finally decided to just leave it alone and let it burn itself out and head to bed. Of course, that's when the fire caught. But we were tired by that point, so after another 15 minutes or so we doused the fire and went to bed anyway.

August 11

Kakabeka FallsAnother chilly morning at Kakabeka, but we had places to go and people to see so we got a move on. After a quick breakfast we packed up and drove out to see Kakabeka Falls, which were amazing. They're not all that high, and the amount of water going over them doesn't compare to Niagara, but there was something about them that fascinated me. I could have stared at them for hours. After I managed to tear myself away, we made our way back east, making at least four stops on our way to Manitouwadge (and saying goodbye once again to my phone signal until six days later in Sault Ste. Marie). The first was at the Terry Fox memorial, just east of Thunder Bay. This is near the spot where Terry was forced to end his Marathon of Hope after running halfway across Canada in 1981. After a short stop to pay our respects to a true Canadian hero, we continued on to our next adventure, an amethyst mine.

The mine site was about 10 km off the highway, and totally wasn't what I expected. It's an open-pit mine, and it's built on a fault line so it just looked like a little mini-canyon about 50 feet wide. They occasionally use blasting but mostly it's manual digging, with high-pressure water and pickaxes. It's a family business so it's not like there are hundreds of miners working there. They did say that their rate of digging is an amazingly slow two feet in twenty years, though with the amount of amethyst they've got for sale, that number seems low. Anyway, after a short tour of the mine, we were let loose in the "digging area", which is a big area that they've seeded with (likely) dump trucks full of stuff they've dug up but haven't gone through themselves. There are little chunks of amethyst everywhere, and you can take whatever you want for $3/pound. Most of the pieces there are pretty tiny, but there were some bigger ones here and there. The boys had a great time digging and while we likely bought too much, we did come away with some pretty nice pieces for the garden.

Our next stop was Eagle Canyon, home of Canada's longest suspension bridge. There were actually two bridges across the canyon, one 300 feet long and 125 feet up and the other 600 feet long and 150 feet up. By comparison, the Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver (which Gail and I visited in about 1996) is only 450 feet long but 230 feet high. We all walked across the first (shorter) bridge, but both Gail and I were a little more nervous than we were expecting. Neither of us is really afraid of heights, but it was a little more shaky and windy than we thought and I took a few pictures with one hand gripping my phone as tight as possible and the other gripping the bridge as tight as possible. I gradually became more comfortable out there, but Gail did not. She finished the first bridge and decided to take the nature trail down to the bottom of the canyon rather than come back across the longer bridge. The boys and I ventured on and it turned out that the second bridge wasn't nearly as scary as the first one, though I have no idea why not since it was just as wobbly and just as windy. I even took some video from the middle of the bridge, which required me to let go of the bridge with both hands. Graeme the daredevil. Gail took a couple of pictures of us from the ground which gives you an idea of the scale. Here's the entire bridge with us in the middle, each of us about a pixel high:Suspension Bridge

and here's us after Gail zoomed in a little (yay telephoto lens!):

Suspension Bridge 2

After descending the steps down to the valley floor, we walked along a trail back to the parking lot and continued making our way towards Manitouwadge.

One thing that surprised us during this drive was the number of cyclists between Thunder Bay and Marathon. Considering the hilly road and the fact that towns were few and far between, we were pretty impressed with these people. Most of them were riding bikes equipped with numerous saddle bags that were, I would assume, filled with Rub A-535.

There are a number of scenic lookouts along this road and at one particularly nice one, we pulled off the road for a look. After we pulled off, a transport truck behind us pulled off as well. This was a particularly big place which was empty so there was lots of room for him to park his rig. The driver got out and approached us. I started to wonder if I'd cut him off or something without realizing it and he was coming to pound me into oblivion, but he smiled and just asked if we'd take his picture (with his rig). He said he loved the area but because he was always driving by himself, he could never get a picture taken with him in it. I took a couple of pictures and we chatted to him for a few minutes. We asked where he was going (just a short trip to Toronto and then New Jersey) and if he ever got bored with the scenery (never). He said he loved the north so much that if he got to Toronto and they told him he'd forgotten something in Nipigon, he'd just smile, turn around, and walk back to his truck. He said that his usual route is a triangle from Toronto to Vancouver to Los Angeles and back to Toronto – a circuit of about 10,000 km which he drives in nine days. We drove off a short while later and then stopped for gas about a half hour after that. He must have passed us while we got gas because I passed him again a short while later – and he remembered us and waved at us out the window.

Pebble BeachOur next stop was in Marathon, only an hour from Manitouwadge but we were starving so we stopped for dinner. We found a Pizza Hut and did the same thing as we had done in Thunder Bay – bought a pizza and found a nice park to sit and eat. In this case, Gail knew of a place called Pebble Beach but we didn't know where it was. We asked the Pizza Hut guy (who, it turned out, was originally from Kitchener/Waterloo), who gave us directions to the parking lot. We parked at the top of a cliff overlooking the beach and enjoyed our dinner. Afterwards, we walked down to the beach itself. If that beach is made up of what Marathon people call "pebbles", I'd love to see what they call "rocks". You can see the pebbles (some of which were four or five inches wide) in this picture. This was definitely not a fine sand dig-your-toes-in kind of beach – flip flops would have been pretty dangerous and bare feet was painful. But the boys had a blast climbing over the hundreds of pieces of driftwood. We grabbed a few nice rocks and a piece of driftwood for the garden, and then went back to the van for the final leg of the day's trip.

The drive north to Manitouwadge was uneventful, and an hour later we were at Rolly and Candyce's place.

Our next installment is just like that Brad Pitt movie: Three Days in Manitouwadge.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Open letter to Mr. Kobus

Dear Mr. Kobus,

I have no idea if that's your name, but it is your license plate. I'm the guy whose van you were parked behind at the Burlington GO Station tonight.

We arrived at the GO Station around 9:00am, and pulled through an empty spot into another spot, so that I could simply pull forward to leave rather than backing out. When I left my van, there was nobody parked behind me. When we returned around 9:45pm, we could see before we even got to our van that yours was right behind ours, parked very close. The front of your van was definitely over the yellow line marking the edge of the parking spot. When we looked closer, we could see that it wasn't just very close, the front of your van was touching the back of mine. My phone's battery was too low to take a flash picture and so this one is fairly dark, but it shows pretty clearly that the two vehicles were touching:


After taking this picture (and one of your rear license plate), I pulled forward to see if there was any damage, and saw a deep scratch near where the vehicles were touching. This is about when you arrived. You looked at the scratch and asserted "That's definitely an old scratch", but I saw no evidence to support this.

However I also saw no evidence that your van did cause the scratch. I did not see any damage to the front of your van. The front bumper of your van is plastic with an indent for the license plate, and it did not appear that the plastic could have caused the scratch. It also did not appear that the licence plate was sticking out from the indent far enough to have caused it. However if the bumpers were squashed a little (not unlikely), the screw holding the license plate on could have caused it, since it was at about the right height and would have been sticking out the furthest of any part of the plate. I found no red paint on your license plate or the screw. I also cannot confirm that the scratch wasn't there when we parked that morning; it might have been. I don't remember seeing it before, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there.

So in a nutshell, I cannot say with any certainty that your van definitely caused any damage to mine, so no harm done, I suppose. Please be a little more careful when parking in the future.

However, you should at least accept the possibility that you actually did park that close to my van. Simply saying "But we didn't park that close" does not qualify as proof that it wasn't your fault. Not accepting that possibility led you to an implausible alternative theory of what happened – that someone must have pushed your van into mine. "But I don't see how", you said, "the doors were locked." You even went around to the back of your van to check for evidence that someone pushed it forwards. You didn't attempt to determine if this is what actually happened, whether it was even possible, or why someone would do this; you skipped directly to "how did they do it?".

Are you really trying to claim that someone broke into your locked van and hot-wired it (something that's exceedingly difficult to do on modern-day cars and vans) only to drive it forward a few inches so it was pushing on my van's bumper, then locked the van again and left? Or that someone used their vehicle to push yours into mine and did this without leaving any damage to the back of your van or any skid tracks on the ground?

Yes, it's possible that someone pushed your van forward into ours for no obvious reason and without leaving any trace. It's also possible that Martians moved it forward with a tractor beam. Or maybe you just parked too far forward and didn't realize it. Which of those three is the most likely, do you think?

Graeme Perrow